– Marco Carvalho

The return of Macau to Chinese sovereignty twenty years ago raised concerns among different sectors of the local society and the Catholic Church was no exception. A former professor of Portugal’s Catholic University, Father João Lourenço resided in Macau for six years, divided in half by the handover ceremony. Macau’s return to Chinese rule, he says, brought a new impetus to the local Catholic Church, forcing it to abandon the lethargy in which it found itself.

Twenty years after the handover, what’s your stance on the transition process?

I would like, first of all, to greet the Macau Special Administrative Region and its residents for these twenty years of autonomy and for the journey made, although there has been a few moments when the particular identity of Macau should have taken on a more significant expression. It would have been important to stress and underline Macau’s cultural identity, so that its uniqueness could be reinforced. It’s of utmost importance to go beyond the matrix of the gaming industry  and all that means entertainment.  Macau is unique and this uniqueness, being reinforced, offers the city an added value that must be nurtured and promoted. Living in the territory at the time of the handover, the sort of apprehension  that you mentioned was noticeable, both amongst the population of a Macanese cultural matrix and the Portuguese-born residents. Back then, it was not the only concern that the Church expressed, but it was something real. Everything pointed out to an unresolved issue: the mutual recognition between the People’s Republic of China and the Holy See. There was, however, hope that the Church of Macau could gain a reinforced visibility and its presence could help untie this knot. The role that some of the members of the Macau Church had played in the handover process, the forthrightness expressed in the Basic Law, the care taken to maintain certain aspects of Catholic matrix, showed early on that the local authorities and the negotiators representing the People’s Republic of China were aware that the Church’s role was to be respected. The social matrix of the local Church, its aggregating dimension, far beyond its numerical representativity, the Catholic culture and heritage were differentiating factors. These aspects allowed Macau and the local Church to preserve their ‘status’ and even, it seems to me, to add value to its presence. Such fears and concerns are completely overcome today.      

Those concerns turned out to be largely unjustified, and the Diocese seems to have even been invested with a new role by the Vatican, with the rehabilitation of St Joseph’s Seminary. What can this role augur for the future?

Macau can regain some of the centrality it had in the past. It won’t be the same as when the territory was at the heart of the Portuguese “Padroado,” but Macau can be a sort of  aggregator, a place where the missionaries that will work in the Southeast Asia region can receive a good formation. It won’t be an easy task, but the Diocese of Macau has the kind of resources that can make this goal attainable. On the other hand, and once that Macau has a very open cultural environment, being a door between a more humanistic culture of Western matrix and a more individualistic and intimate oriental culture, this could be a good asset that the Church can make use of. However, it should be noted that this should be done by involving the local society and as a contribution to the enhancement of its unique autonomous identity.

The local Catholic community has, itself, become a lot more plural over the last twenty years. Was it difficult for the Church to keep up with this change in the social profile of the local faithful?

Living far from Macau, this is a question that I cannot easily answer. However, when I visit Macau – and I have done it quite often in the last few years – I feel that there is a good ecclesial climate, despite the changes that were brought by the arrival of a Bishop with another cultural background. After an unavoidable time of adaptation, the Catholic Community has regained its pace and I feel that it is more vigorous, more committed and also more pluralistic than it was before. There are several national communities with a very strong presence in Macau and this is the sort of  aspect that gives Catholicism its universalist dimension. Even in terms of clergy, there is a greater plurality of presence today, with priests coming from all over the world and this should be seen as a great sign. It seems to me that the great challenge the local Church needs to answer is to open itself to the Chinese population, especially those that are coming to Macau. It should be able to offer them a space of refuge, not only in a material acceptance, but also of living and spiritual ‘comfort and stimulation.’ The Church should be able to follow its causes and yearnings, especially those of the young people who study in its multiple educational and training institutions.  This network is a very important asset that the Church has and it should be valued.


What was or were the most important moments you have experiences in Macau?

My most remarkable moment in Macau was, undoubtedly, the handover and the return of Macau to Chinese sovereignty . I felt in this process, despite the anxiety that we discussed earlier, a new impetus and a great challenge to the Church. The Church was forced to remove herself from a certain comfort and lethargy, to accept the huge challenge of listening to the signs of the times. It should keep itself motivated by  the ‘mystery of the incarnation’: it must be able to assert itself as the voice of God and a sign in a new social, political and cultural reality. This challenge was, in fact, an enormous challenge. Some accepted it with pleasure, maybe with a certain amount of nationalism as well; others saw those changes as a time of asceticism and growth, so that they could truly escape from their religious comfort zone. Faith –  and inherently the Church as well – needs to be nurtured with this kind of call, so that it can leave its comfort zone and launch itself on the construction of God’s Kingdom. I feel privileged for having had the chance to take part in such a moment, even though at the beginning I also had my very own moments of doubt and disquiet. I confess – and I am not ashamed for doing so – that such fears were quickly dispelled, and I never felt uncomfortable in the new social and political situation.


And the greatest challenge the church has encountered? Does the distrust with which the University of San Jose is still viewed by the Chinese authorities overshadows or tarnishes a seemingly cordial relationship?

This is perhaps the most sensitive sign of any distrust that may still remain. The Church’s work in the social and educational field is unquestionable. You cannot deny it or do without it. As for the formation of an elite of thought, markedly alternative to the existing status quo, it will always be the object of some fear on the part of a culture and of a society that is deeply marked by an established order and by patterns that are decided and controlled from above. Macau is a very small city, but institutions never like to take any sort of risks. Although in Macau the power of an institution such as the University of Saint Joseph is very limited, we can say that the symbology that serves to represent the power of the Gospel – to be ‘the leaven in the midst of the dough’ – also applies here as regards to the institutions that are not part of  the Church, once that there is always the risk that the leaven of thought may give rise to new dynamics and new values.

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