Pope Francis has sent “best wishes and greetings” to President Xi Jinping and the Chinese people as they prepare to celebrate the Lunar New Year on Feb. 8 and also expressed his great admiration for this people “who have so much to offer to the world.”
He said all this in an exclusive interview with Asia Times, an online news outlet registered in Hong Kong. In the interview, published on Feb. 2, Francis made clear he sees no need to fear of China’s rapid rise to power. Indeed, he expressed his conviction that “the Western world, the Eastern world and China all have the capacity to maintain the balance of peace and the strength to do so” and added, “We must find the way, always through dialogue; there is no other way.”
“Encounter is achieved through dialogue” and “the true balance of peace is realized through dialogue,” he stated. As China emerges, Francis sees that the challenge facing humanity is to find this balance of peace and to avoid another division of the world such as happened at Yalta in the 20th century. Therefore, he explained: “Dialogue does not mean that we end up with a compromise, half the cake for you and the other half for me. This is what happened in Yalta and we saw the results. No, dialogue means: look, we have got to this point, I may or may not agree, but let us walk together; this is what it means to build. And the cake stays whole, walking together. The cake belongs to everyone, it is humanity, culture. Carving up the cake, as in Yalta, means dividing humanity and culture into small pieces. And culture and humanity cannot be carved into small pieces.”
Apart from such geo-political considerations, there is much that is very personal in this hour-long interview with Francesco Sisci, an Italian and columnist for Asia Times, senior researcher at China’s Renmin University and the first foreigner to be admitted to the graduate program of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Francis, for instance, revealed that ever since he was a boy he had “admiration” for China, indeed “for me, China has always been a reference point of greatness. A great country. But more than a country, a great culture, with an inexhaustible wisdom.” He said that when he began to study the life of Matteo Ricci, the 16th-century Jesuit missionary—the first Westerner to enter the Forbidden City, he discovered that he felt the same “admiration” as Ricci did for this people, and took careful note how Ricci “was able to enter into dialogue with this great culture,” and was able “to encounter it."
As pope, Francis is committed to the culture of encounter and in this interview he stated that “Ricci’s experience teaches us that it is necessary to enter into dialogue with China, because it is an accumulation of wisdom and history. It is a land blessed with many things. And the Catholic Church, one of whose duties is to respect all civilizations, before this civilization, I would say, has the duty to respect it with a capital ‘R’.”
In actual fact, the Jesuit pope is consciously following in the footsteps of Ricci as he seeks to develop friendship and normalize relations with China. This interview is but his latest effort to reach that goal. Significantly, it comes in the wake of the recent round of negotiations between the Holy See and China that was held in the Vatican at the end of January, a round that seems to confirm that progress is being made, slowly but surely, at resolving crucial problems and, in the first instance, the one regarding the selection and appointment of bishops in the mainland. Significantly, however, the interviewer did not touch on this or any of the other vexed questions relating to the situation of the Church in China in his conversation with the pope. Instead he focused “on broad cultural and philosophical issues concerning all Chinese.”
He drew attention, for example, to the fact that today, as a result of the one-child policy, China’s population is aging. Francis commented on this matter with the utmost sensitivity, saying: “The problem for China of not having children must be very painful; because the pyramid is then inverted and a child has to bear the burden of his father, mother, grandfather and grandmother. And this is exhausting, demanding, disorientating. It is not the natural way. I understand that China has opened up possibilities on this front.” This last remark was a reference to the fact that China has announced that it has changed the one-child policy.
Nearing the end of the interview, Francis had this message for the Chinese people: “The history of a people is always a path. A people at times walks more quickly, at times more slowly, at times it pauses, at times it makes a mistake and goes backwards a little, or takes the wrong path and has to retrace its steps to follow the right way. But when a people moves forward, this does not worry me because it means they are making history. And I believe that the Chinese people are moving forward and this is their greatness.”
Since the Chinese will celebrate the Lunar New Year on Feb. 8, the Year of the Monkey, the interviewer asked him if he would like to send them a greeting, and this is what Francis said: “On the eve of the New Year, I wish to convey my best wishes and greetings to President Xi Jinping and to all the Chinese people. And I wish to express my hope that they never lose their historical awareness of being a great people, with a great history of wisdom, and that they have much to offer to the world. The world looks to this great wisdom of yours. In this New Year, with this awareness, may you continue to go forward in order to help and cooperate with everyone in caring for our common home and our common peoples.”