A few days ago a former student from Beijing National Seminary contacted me. He was in Spain with a group of Catholics from China for pilgrimage and who had come from Fatima in Portugal. He asked me if they could celebrate Mass in our church in Segovia since that day they haven’t celebrated the Mass yet. Thanks to the availability of Jose San Roman, my novice master, they could celebrate the Mass there with great fervor, as Pepe told me later.
This event made me think, which I share it here with you.
Images are powerful, indeed as the saying goes, a picture paints a thousand words. Because they are powerful, they are dangerous, specially when they are paradigmatic images deeply and unconsciously rooted in our cultural memory.
Throughout the centuries Chinese considered themselves the Middle Kingdom, an image of a world with China at the center. Europe in the Middle Ages had Jerusalem as the center of the world just as the Roman Empire had Rome, where all the roads of the world, at least their world, converged. But facts are indisputable, they just are… and the world, a spheroid, has no surface center. Indeed, reality sometimes comes with a vengeance: it is impossible to project a spheroid on a flat surface without some compromise and distortion. We keep trying, but all maps are a very limited image of the real thing. Still some images endure the passing of time. Centers and peripheries, ups and downs are all part of our imagination, that is, of our need to imagine things in a comprehensive way. God’s given round world has to be flattened, and in so doing we choose who is up and who is down, who is at the center and who is outside, who benefits and loses with the distortion and the compromises.
The Church of the twenty-first century has to start updating its mapping imagination and imagery. Rome, Jerusalem, Europe… are centers no more because like the planet we live in, our Catholic Church, today undeniably Universal, is not flat but round… and if those places still hold some “central” spot, it is only part of our imagining. Today they are but reference points, milestones in a road, useful for as long as they provide us with signposts for the journey. If they become outdated, then their centrality, their referential power for our journey diminishes, or even disappear. In the ancient Church, more central than Rome were Alexandria, Carthage, even Jerusalem and Antioch. They were the Church’s turbo-engines of the time… Europe had a long reign from early Middle Ages until early 20th century… then the Americas… and now… I don’t know, but for sure it is not Old Europe, neither “New” America. The Church of the 21st century has names starting with “A”, of Asia, Africa and “Anawim America.”
Rome, Lourdes, Fatima, Santiago, Assisi, Jerusalem… are brimming with Christians from Asia, Africa and America who come to the roots to see and touch what they only were able to imagine through the words of missionaries, elders, parents… and they are thankful. They see the historical strength of a church that many times had to survive and learn through calamities and confrontations… but they are also witnessing the “slow death” of Christianity in these lands. Empty churches and convents, sold to be used as libraries, museums, concert halls, hotels, even as bars and restaurants… Many of them probably have been praying their whole lives for their countries and societies to become “Christian,” and then when they go to formerly so-called Christian nations, they cannot believe what they see… And we, believers from those former Christian lands, can only say like at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer: “It is right and just.” If it is right and just that the secular world has its own autonomy, what should we then aim for? Is there no need for the conversion of nations and governments? Should we renounce any political presence as Christians? Do we have to keep our faith for ourselves? Isn’t that what secularism and many dictatorships, both leftist and rightist, affirm and expect? Is Christian faith then just an ethereal spiritualist faith, a good talk without the good walk?
Indeed, what is the right way for these young local churches, rooted in non-Christian and until recently quite traditional societies, to face the new challenges they are facing from the globalization of social and political rights? And those rights and visions (human dignity, equality, non-discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation, separation of church and state…), whether we agree with these or not, are here to stay. Is it understandable or even adequate for a local church, like mine, the Taiwanese one, to oppose civil society’s discourse and dialogue on gender identity and marriage civil law even spreading lies and hate speech to the point of bringing division among Catholics? How do believers face in some African and Asian nations the discrimination against women from a Gospel-centered stance? How do we face it… when our own Church structures are deeply determined by this discrimination? Shouldn’t we recognize and praise the Chinese Communist government effort to eradicate discrimination against women, end abject poverty, political corruption… with the same energy we rightly decry it for other issues? Shouldn’t we condemn liberal capitalism and its obscene adoration of Mammon and its commitment for a society based on exclusion and inequality at least with the same energy we invest in their portfolios?
The world and the church are flat no more… and we must realize that images we, Catholics, inherited from bygone times and still hold as immutable—even sacred—are as faithful to the Gospel and to the cry of today’s society cry as the 1190 world map of Honorius of Autumn (see right pic) is to today’s satellite maps. Let us not fall into the fallacy of Nirvana, something that even the old Latin world was aware of: Spe meliori amittitur bonum (With the hope of the better, the good is lost). Let us aim for the good but with our horizon set on the better… and for us, Christians, that is none other than the Gospel of Jesus. And let’s remember that this final horizon which is continually pulling us, is not a result of our human effort but of God’s grace.