Thursday, November 22, 2018

The Life and Work of Mgr. Li Jingfeng, Bishop of Fengxiang (Part 1)

Saturday, November 17, marked the first anniversary of the death of Mgr. Li Jingfeng, Bishop of Fengxiang, a heroic confessor of the Church in China, who throughout the tribulations of his long episcopate gave a glorious witness to the Catholic faith. In tribute to his memory, we offer a brief biography and, thanks to the diligence of a Chinese reader, publish an exemplary selection of his writings for the first time in English. Requiescat in pace. (Our thanks to Zachary Thomas and Theresa Shen for sharing this with our readers.)

Msgr Li was born into a Catholic family in Gaoling County (Shaanxi) in 1922. He became a priest in 1947 and performed various duties in the diocese until he was arrested in 1959 and sentenced to forced labor, from which he was released only in 1980.

After his release, he dedicated himself to rebuilding the Catholic communities of his province of Shaanxi. In 1980, when he was secretly consecrated the bishop of Fengxiang, he became the head of a Catholic community that obstinately refused to join the “official” structures of the Church, despite the efforts of the local authorities to impose the Patriotic Association on Chinese Catholics. For this reason, the cathedral, churches, seminary, and the various organizations of his diocese remained “clandestine” for a long time, though physically visible to everyone. In 2004, at the advice of Mgr. Li Du’an, “official” bishop of Xi’an, Mgr. Li decided that, for the sake of the unity of the Church in Shaanxi, it was necessary to “surface,” i.e. to obtain from the government recognition of his episcopal rank. He obtained it, but nevertheless, always refused any membership in the Patriotic Association and any affiliation to the “official” episcopal conference. In May 2011, aged but still in good physical and intellectual health, he organized the election of his successor, thus assuring the continuity of apostolic succession in his diocese.

Letter to the General Synod

On 16 October 2012, the 13th Ordinal General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops began its first session in Rome to address themes relating to the “New Evangelization.” Beijing refused to grant the bishops of continental China permission to attend the synod. Instead, Bishop Li addressed a letter to the assembled fathers, boldly urging them to take inspiration from Chinese Catholics, whose fervor he contrasts with the “lukewarmness” and “infidelity” of Christians in the West. Here is a translation of the letter:

Most Reverend and Esteemed Fathers of the Synod, I am grateful that you are able to attend the synod and visit the tomb of St. Peter, but I am grieved that you are not able to hear any voice from the Church in China. In my desire that our voice should be heard among you and especially by our Pope Benedict XVI, I send You today this short letter.

I want to tell you that our Church in China, and especially the Christian laity, still keep the piety, faithfulness, sincerity, and devotion of the ancient Christians, even while suffering under fifty years of persecution. I also want to tell you that I am always offering prayers to the All Powerful God, that our piety, fidelity, sincerity, and our devotion can heal the lukewarmness, infidelity, and worldliness of Christians outside China, which have arisen out of an unrestrained liberty and openness. In the Year of Faith, in our discussions in the Synod you may address the reasons why our faith has remained strong in China. The reason is, as a maxim of the great Chinese philosopher Laozi says: “Prosperity is born in calamity, and calamity lies concealed in satisfaction.” In the foreign churches, the lukewarmness, infidelity, and worldliness of Christians has affected many of the clergy. But in the Chinese Church the Christian laity are more devout than the clergy. Can the piety, fidelity, sincerity, and devotion of the lay Christians of China have an effect on clergy outside China? I have found the lament of Pope Benedict XVI very moving: “As we know, in vast areas of the earth faith risks being extinguished, like a flame that is no longer fed. We are facing a profound crisis of faith, a loss of the religious sense that constitutes the greatest challenge to the church today. The renewal of faith must therefore take priority in the commitment of the entire Church in our time” (See the review “Christ to the world” vol. 59, p.167). Nevertheless, I believe that the Pope may find consolation in the faith of us, the Christians of China. I say nothing of the political situation, which is a transitory thing. (A version of the original text, which I have amended, can be found here. The Vatican’s reply can be found here.)
Latin Studies
During his ministry, Bishop Li Jingfeng promoted the study of Latin. He prepared and published a Chinese-Latin textbook Grammatica Figurificata Linguae Latinae (Second Edition May 1, 2010), which has been used to instruct seminarians and priests of his diocese. The Chinese preface to this work follows Veterum Sapientia, defending the study of Latin as a vital element in clerical formation. It notes especially the importance for the clergy of being able to read, translate, and explain classic Christian texts to lay Catholics in China:

It is common knowledge that Latin is the official language of the Church. Consider for example this statement of Pope John XXIII: ‘The Catholic Church has a dignity far surpassing that of every merely human society, for it was founded by Christ the Lord...The language it uses should be noble, majestic, and non-vernacular. The Church’s language must be not only universal but also immutable...If the truths of the Catholic Church were entrusted to an unspecified number of them, the meaning of these truths, varied as they are, would not be manifested to everyone with sufficient clarity and precision’ (Veterum Sapientia). And Pope John Paul II says: ‘Countless works of the Church are written in Latin. Without a sound knowledge of Latin, it is impossible to read them directly and unearth their treasure. One has to access them through another’s translation. But the correctness of the translation is not certain.’

The Latin language itself has many features that deserve attention. ‘There can be no doubt as to the formative and educational value either of the language of the Romans or of great literature generally. It is a most effective training for the pliant minds of youth. It exercises, matures, and perfects the principal faculties of mind and spirit. It sharpens the wits and gives keenness of judgment. It helps the young mind to grasp things accurately and develop a true sense of values. It is also a means for teaching highly intelligent thought and speech’ (Veterum Sapientia). There is good reason for this. The declensions, conjugations, and grammatical structure of the Latin language are highly logical, demanding a clear mind, memory, and precise judgment, all of which are helpful to the exercise and testing of intelligence.

There is still another feature of Latin, as the Pope says: ‘Its concise, varied and harmonious style, full of majesty and dignity makes for singular clarity and impressiveness of expression.’ Thus the value and importance for Catholics to learn Latin is clear.

These facts suggest the importance of learning Latin for the clergy of China. In addition, many precious Church documents have been translated into Chinese by people outside of the Church, such as Fides quaerens intellectum by St. Anselm, Civitas Dei and the Confessiones of St. Augustine, etc. These works have all been translated into Chinese by non-Catholics, which is a great irony for our Catholic clergy! This reality should be a warning: not to learn Latin is to lag behind and remain passive. Is our Chinese Church willing to languish forever at the margins of the universal Church?

Moreover, in 2007 Pope Benedict XVI issued the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum to grant the wish of many of the faithful who ‘continued to be attached with such love and affection to the earlier liturgical forms.’ Its intention is that all priests be able to celebrate Tridentine Mass in the forma extraordinaria. This is a great challenge to every priest. Are we capable of doing it? As priests of the Church, if we are not able to celebrate the sacrifice and to venerate God in the official language of the Church, what does that say about our identity as priests! The Holy See further suggests that ‘Gregorian chant be preserved and be sung in monasteries, other religious houses and seminaries, as a special form of chanted prayer and as something of high cultural and pedagogic value’ (Voluntati Obsequens, April 1974).

Latin is not only the special language of the Church. It has also been used as an international language of science and culture by scholars up until the present day. For hundreds of years, many great works of science were published in Latin. Countless famous people such as Bacon, Newton, Descartes, Spencer, Copernicus, etc. have written in Latin. Even the doctoral dissertation of Karl Marx was written in Latin; in 1955, the Convention of Mayors of the World’s Capital Cities, held in Florence, Italy, issued its peace pact in Latin.

(Part 2 will discuss Bishop Li Jingfeng’s support of the traditional Latin liturgy.)

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