China’s President Xi Jin Ping has just wrapped up a South Asian tour targeting a new Maritime Silk Route. And a papal letter reportedly invites him to retread Marco Polo’s original Silk Route, this time East to West.
A papal invitation
The news of Pope Francis inviting President Xi to visit the Vatican was reported by well-informed Rome journalist Gerard O’Connell. According to O’Connell, whose Argentine-born wife Elisabetta Pique has just published the recentmost papal biography, Pope Francis has sent the invitation through an Argentinian emissary.
The papal letter, reportedly, offers to meet with the Chinese president even in Beijing. It is a sequel to Pope Francis’ earlier-expressed readiness to “visit China tomorrow.” The unprecedented papal initiative independent of the Curia is reminiscent of Saint John XXIII’s innovative moves to build contact with then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Those prophetic moves can have subtle lessons for today as well.
Pope John XXIII and Khrushchev
Pope John was the only recent pope with wide diplomatic experience in Eastern Europe and Western Europe. He also had pastoral wisdom to act decisively and discreetly amid curial dithering. Then curial heavyweights like Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani said contact with the USSR would weaken the faith of Eastern bloc Catholics and give wrong signals to Western nations.
Despite such curial misgivings, the pope welcomed Khrushchev’s daughter Rada and her husband Adzhuberi to the Vatican. The visitors conveyed warm greetings from the Soviet leader and his appreciation for the pope’s work for world peace. But when Adzhuberi proposed diplomatic relations between the Holy See and USSR, the pope was slow to respond. He used a metaphor, “God did not create the world in just one day!”
The onetime diplomat intimated his rustic Roncalli bias for people’s pastoral welfare over diplomatic links. “The Vatican has two hands, and we want to shake the two hands of the USSR, that of the State and that of all the members of the Russian Church,” he said.
Pope John’s gutsy pastoral foresight has much wisdom for today, especially for those who consider diplomatic links more important than China Catholics’ welfare.
His informal invitation, “I hope that if Mr Khrushchev visits Rome, both of us will find time for a meeting,” never worked out. Nonetheless, the two genial giants had taken the first steps toward the thaw. It was bigger than man’s first steps on the moon. History was in the making, and the world would never be the same again.
The breakthrough following that thaw helped ease Church-State tensions in the USSR. Already, there had been token actions like the freeing of Ukranian Archbishop Josyf Slipyj from detention. Over time, other similar moves followed within the Soviet bloc.
Improved Church-State relations weakened patriotic Catholic associations such as Hungary’s Opus Pax, and Czechoslovakia’s Pacem in Terris. When Yugoslavia’s Church-State dialogue grew, groups like Cyril Methodius Society lost their grip over religious affairs.
What started with Khrushchev greetings for Pope John’s 80th birthday launched a momentum in Eastern Europe. Its worldwide impact endures still even though the two leaders never met. Will Pope Francis’ letter to President Xi open another historic chapter in world history?
The leader of China’s 1.3 billion people may need time and space to reflect on and respond to the humble gesture by the leader of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics. Whatever may be its outcome, the papal letter was a Jesus moment like Matteo Ricci’s overtures to Confucian culture. Once more, history is in via, with an invitation to leaven world peace with Confucian insights. The Lord of history knows that its ultimate end result lies beyond the control of either pope or president.
Hector Welgampola has retired as Executive Editor of the former Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN) based in Hong Kong, then Bangkok. Before UCAN, Hector headed editorial teams of newspapers in Sri Lanka. Since retiring Hector has lived in Australia with his wife, Rita. He authored the resource book Asian Church Glossary and Stylebook. Write him: firstname.lastname@example.org