A cardinal who helped change Catholic missionary work in China is now a possible candidate for beatification. 

Cardinal Celso Costantini became the first apostolic delegate to China in 1922. The situation in China was particularly complex in the wake of European colonialism and the end of the opium trade. Christian missionaries were suspected of being foreign agents. Tens of thousands of Christian civilians, predominantly Chinese Catholics, were killed in the Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901.

For its part, France considered the Catholic missions in the land to be under its direct protection, despite its recently approved constitution rigidly separating Church and State. Then-Bishop Costantini was called not only to navigate the complex political situation, but also to work for a change in the mentality with which the missionary work was being carried out. 

His appointment to China came not long after Pope Benedict XV’s 1919 apostolic letter “Maximum Illud,” which many believe changed forever the idea of Catholic missions. The novelty of the apostolic letter was that “Benedict XV underscored that mission territory was not about a place or a religion to be conquered, but rather a place to proclaim the Gospel in order to give all the people a chance to hear the Word of God,” Cardinal Fernando Filoni, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of People, told CNA. Cardinal Costantini implemented this vision in China 

In his apostolic letter, Benedict XV asked bishops and superiors in charge of Catholic missions to train, educate and ordain local clergy, and reminded missionaries that they have no other goal than the spiritual one. Then-Bishop Costantini called the first Chinese National Council, which took place in the Xuijaui Cathedral in Shanghai from May 14 to June 12, 1924. The council gathered 44 ordinary bishops coming from all over China. No political matters were discussed during that meeting.

The gathering approved a final document with 861 canons (paragraphs) that addressed the need to train a local Church with a local clergy. It voiced hope that Chinese-born bishops would be appointed soon, and recognized that missionaries were just transients. The document noted the importance for missionaries to learn the Chinese language and the need to respect the Chinese tradition.

Although it received little attention elsewhere, the Chinese National Council paved the way to a renewed organization of the Church in China. According to Cardinal Costantini’s postulators, if the Church in China was able to go underground after the Communist revolution and remain strong until now, is mostly due to the work of the missionary bishop.

The opening of the diocesan phase for his beatification has consequences today: it is reviving the discussion around the difficult current situation between China and the Holy See. The cardinal was born in 1876 and ordained a priest in 1899. He led an ordinary priestly ministry in his native region of Veneto for 14 years. Then in 1920 he was sent as apostolic delegate to Fiume, a former Italian city that came under Yugoslavia administration after the First World War.

Ordained a bishop in 1921, he was appointed the first apostolic delegate to China the next year. His time in China witnessed continued changes. In June 15, 1926, Pope Pius XI sent to the Church of China the letter “Ab Ipsia,” in which he emphasized that missionaries did not serve the interest of foreign nations. He announced that soon native-born bishops would be ordained. The new bishop, the Pope said, had the task to cooperate with apostolic vicars in China for the prosperity of their country.

Pius XI ordained the first six Chinese bishops Oct. 28, 1926, at St. Peter’s Basilica. The ordination of Chinese-born bishops drew varied reactions among missionaries in China. Some of them, like Bishop Costantini, welcomed the move, while others showed some hostility to the Pope’s decision. Parts of the Diocese of China were directly entrusted to missionary orders, some of which felt they were losing “territory.”

As for the Church’s missionary vision, in February 1926, Pius XI issued the encyclical “Rerum Ecclesiae,” which confirmed the guidelines established by “Maximum Illud.” Bishop Costantini 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 backed the translation of the missal into Chinese in order to help faithful to understand the Mass, which at the time was said only in Latin.

After a few years, he saw the fruits of his work. In 1941 and 1942 came two decrees of the Holy Office, now known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. These approved the use of the local language to celebrate the sacraments in New Guinea, China, Japan, Indochina, India and Africa. Then in 1949 the Holy Office approved the use of Chinese language in the celebration of the Mass. The Holy See established the ordinary ecclesiastical hierarchy in China in 1946. The Chinese territory was divided in 20 archdioceses, 85 dioceses and 34 apostolic prefectures.

In 1953, Celso Costantini was made a cardinal by Pius XII. He passed away in 1958.