USJ to commemorate centenary of the First Plenary Council for China

The Primum Concilium Sinense Was A Pivotal Moment In The Evangelization of the Chinese People

Marco Carvalho

At the beginning of 1924, His Holiness Pope Pius XI entrusted to the Reverend Celso Constantini, Apostolic Delegate to China, the duty of bringing together in the city of Shanghai all the vicars and Catholic leaders then working in the country and of presiding in His name over the first-ever Plenary Council of China.

The ‘Primum Concilium Sinense’ took place from May 15 to June 12 and it was a pivotal moment in the history of the Church in China. The meeting marked an important development in the evangelization of the Chinese people, with the participants agreeing that Chinese Catholics should, from then on, participate in the canonical decisions and gain access to greater ecclesial responsibilities.

The Shanghai Plenary Council put the Chinese Church onto a new course. The pivotal event sets the tone for a four-day long international conference that will take place in Macau in late June next year. Organized by the Faculty of Religious Studies and Philosophy of the University of Saint Joseph (USJ) and the Xavier Centre for Memory and Identity, the symposium will bring to Macau world-renowned experts on the history of the Church in China, such as Father Gianni Criveller, an Italian PIME missionary that lived and taught in Greater China for 27 years, Austrian sinologist Leopold Leeb and Anthony Lam Sui-ky, a researcher at the Holy Spirit Study Centre of the Diocese of Hong.

These and other speakers will analyse, between June 26 and June 29, the history of the Council and the way it shaped the development of the Catholic Church in China in the decades that followed. Held in Shanghai one hundred years ago, the First Catholic Council for China marked a turning point in the Vacation’s perception of the Middle Kingdom.

Headed by the first Apostolic Delegate of the Holy See to China, the future Cardinal Celso Constantini, the Council, Thomas Cai claims, set in motion the process of ecclesiastical “decolonization” of the Chinese Church: “The First Plenary Council of the Catholic Church in China was a meeting of bishops, religious provincials and superiors, vicars and priests from all parts of China, gathered by Pope Pius XI’s apostolic delegate to China, Reverend Celso Constantini. The council was inaugurated in May 1924 and concluded in June of the same year. It promulgated decrees on various aspects – canonical institution, religious life, evangelisation and others – of ecclesiastical life in China. One of the most important fruits of the council is the formation of Chinese priests to take on more ecclesial responsibilities,” the director of the Xavier Centre for Memory and Identity recalls.

“Constantini also put an enormous effort into the Church indigenisation in China. The policy led to the consecration of six Chinese native bishops by Pope Pius XI in Rome in 1926. These six bishops were the first native bishops to be consecrated for China in almost 250 years. The foundation of the Holy Spirit Seminary in Hong Kong was also a fruit of the Council’s vision. However, due to the political situation in China it was not possible to implement, all at once, the decrees that came out of the Council,” professor Cai told O Clarim.

In the Council’s aftermath, Constantini managed to direct the Chinese mission towards the path of renewal. At the same time, the future cardinal managed to successfully fight the obstinate remnants of the forces that were still looking to impose European traits on the Catholic presence in the Far East. But the first Apostolic Delegate to China did much more than just eliminating foreign influence and closing the issue of the Chinese Rites Controversy. Constantini dedicated himself to improving the work of missionaries and believed that evangelization in China belonged to the Chinese people. He entrusted the destinies of the Chinese Catholic Church to the Chinese clergy and promoted enculturation, a gamble that bore its first substantial fruits two years later.

On October 28, 1926, the first six Chinese bishops ordained in modern times were consecrated by Pope XI at Saint Peter’s Basilica. The ordination of Chinese-born bishops drew varied reactions among missionaries in China. Some of them, like Bishop Constantini, welcomed the move, while others showed some hostility to the Pope’s decision. One hundred years on, the ordination is widely seen as an historic milestone, one that would shape the Catholic faith in China for decades to come: “The Council’s vision of a local Church in communion with the Universal Church encouraged more priests to evangelize people by ways that are seen as more suitable to Chinese people. This vision was also re-affirmed by the Second Vatican Council,” Thomas Cai sustains.

“Could it inspire a new Council for China? A lot of practical issues have to be considered for a new Council for China. Maybe, it is better to leave the question to the speakers of our 2024 symposium,” suggests the director of the Xavier Centre for Memory and Identity.

Constantini, then a bishop, returned to Italy in 1933, but he kept on working for the cause of the Church in China. Appointed secretary of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, he enthusiastically backed the translation of the missal into Chinese in order to help the faithful understand the Mass, which back then was said only in Latin.

Celso Constantini’s efforts bore fruit after a few years. In 1941 and 1942, two decrees were promulgated by the Holy Office, now known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The decrees approved the use of the local languages to celebrate the sacraments in New Guinea, China, Japan, Indochina, India and Africa. Seven years later, in 1949, the Holy Office approved the use of the Chinese language in the celebration of the Holy Mass.