My Chinese Catholic Friends Are Spiritual…and Religious

Recently, I finished reading John C.H. Wu’s Beyond East and West. It is a great story and one which sadly is out of print. It led me to reading the book written by John’s friend Lou Tseng-Tsiang, briefly Prime Minister and former Foreign Minister of China. Here he is as a Benedictine monk and priest named Dom Pierre-Célestin. Is it just me, or does he look like the very model of serenity?

His friend John Wu called him Dom Lou, and he mentioned him a few times in Beyond East and West. What follows are a few of Dom Lou’s thoughts on his conversion from the, again out of print, book he authored entitled Ways of Confucius and of Christ. To help round out the backstory of these two gentlemen, they are both former Protestants. John was a convert, and Lou was born into Christianity. Given the whole “I’m spiritual, but not religious” meme going around nowadays, Dom Lou’s story is worthy of reflection.

Lou, and his friend John Wu too, for that matter, never batted an eye when discussing the teachings of Confucius in conjunction with Catholicism. John discussed the teachings of Lao Tzu as well. They did not consider them to be mutually exclusive. Perhaps neither should you. I couldn’t agree more with the thoughts that follow. Like Dom Lou, I also am blessed with a wife who didn’t push me into converting.  It took Dom Lou twelve years, and me eighteen, but in both cases, once we looked into the matter, the choice became obvious.

Let me warn you now that this post may be a little long. Grab a favorite beverage or a snack and then prepare to settle down for a spell.  Dom Lou, you have the floor.

Excerpted from Ways of Confucius and of Christ

“My conversion is not a conversion; it is a vocation.”

That reflection, which I find in my diary under the date of May 23rd, 1934, sums up the religious history of the Chinese politician who has been led by God, much more than by himself, towards the Church, towards the Benedictine Order, and towards the priesthood.

I am a Confucianist. When I was thirteen my father placed me in the School of Foreign Languages in Shanghai, and I have not done the whole of traditional Chinese classical studies. What matter! The intellectual and spiritual tradition of Confucianism, the cult of the Most High, the practice of filial piety, the eagerness to give proof of virtue, in order to come to understand man better in the acquisition of wisdom, all that makes up the spirit of the Chinese race since the time of the emperors Yao, Choen, and of Yu, the contemporaries of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, in submission to the master of ten thousand generations, Confucius, and to that other great philosopher, Mencius.

By all this I have ceaselessly desired to be moulded and nourished, all the more because I am not a doctor, or a licentiate, or a bachelor in letters. And because I have spent almost all my life abroad, often very isolated in the midst of the varying surroundings in which I have found myself, and having to carry on a constant fight for my country, whose past, present, and future were the object of every derision and of every contempt.

The making of these moral efforts had no other object than that of obedience to my duty as a man, and I found the reward for it in the filial joy given by the duty itself, whose accomplishment made it possible for me to be not too unworthy of Heaven and not to dishonor my country, my parents, and my master.

*****

The Confucianist spirit led me to see the evident superiority of Christianity, as three centuries ago it led the Minister of State Paul Siu(lower left in portrait here); and that without regard to the personal shortcomings of Christians—or rather, in the very field of human qualities and shortcomings. The Confucianist spirit led me to recognize the superiority, so very plain, of the Holy Roman Church, holding a treasure from which, from century to century, the believer draws riches ancient and new; a living treasure which, from century to century, increases and bears fruit.

*****

At the center of Catholic worship we find the celebration of a sacrifice of which the august character infinitely surpasses all the sacrifices which, in whatever religion, have sought to express the relations between man and God, and to render glory to God.

It was instituted by Jesus Christ on the eve of His death. It commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus. It is the mysterious renewing of it. Daily all over the world, the celebration of the sacrifice of the Mass groups round more than three hundred thousand altars, those to whom the death of the Lord appears as the principle of their spiritual life. Has ever a man died who knew, in the souls of hundreds of millions of human beings, a resurrection so profound, so enduring, so intimate, so renewing?

That spiritual life, which flows from the sacrifice of Jesus Christ upon the Cross, the Church manifests and dispenses to her faithful by the ministry of the seven Sacraments instituted by Jesus Christ to signify the gift of grace and to dispense it. By this sacramental ministry, the Church gives life and sustenance to mankind from the cradle to the grave, giving a constant maternal support to the human person and, through that person, to the family and to all society. This fact of the Mass and the seven Sacraments alone calls for observation and reflection, and compels admiration and respect.

However little informed a man may be in religious matters, if he comes at a given moment of his existence to leave the setting of that ignorance, and of the limitation which it involves, he enters upon horizons which have nothing of fantasy about them and which are immense.  He is given an insight into the condition of the human race on earth in an incomparably more profound and more living light, happier, greater, and more peaceful.

To resolve the apparent contradictions of human life, it is no longer necessary for him to take refuge in subjective ideas; for he has the power to embrace the whole of life as it is. Its worth and its mediocrity; its weakness and its strength; its suffering and its joy; its freedom and its dependence; its misery; its sin and its sanctity; its brevity and its immortality. And this life appears to him then unified by the sanctity of its origin, which is God, and by the glory of its final end, which is also, the One True God.

*****

The attentive consideration of the maternal and social character of the Universal Church leads to a search for an understanding of a spiritual institution so grandly conceived and instituted in a manner at once divine and human.

Confucianism, whose standards of moral life are so profound and so beneficial, finds in the Christian revelation and in the existence and life of the Catholic Church the most illustrious justification of all, human and immortal, that it possesses.  And it finds there, at the same time, the fulfillment of moral light and moral strength, which solves the problems before which our sages have had the humility to draw back, understanding that it does not belong to man to penetrate the mystery of Heaven, to wait until, if He deigns to do so, the Creator Himself reveals Himself.

*****

But what, then, is the ambition of the Church, and what is her secret? Whence came to her the interior strength which can, at this point, convince and “convert” a Far Easterner? How has it been possible for a bridge to be built between her and me? How is that bridge to be built between her and the whole Asian world, in order that we may be able to feel the divine order of this institution, of her doctrine, of her morality, and of her very existence, of which the eminent superiority, de facto and de jure, is universal?

How can Christianity, which has grown up in the Western world and, while always distinguishing itself from it, has penetrated it to the extent of being identified with it—how can Christianity be in a position to become identified in the same way with the Eastern world, and to retain, in again thoroughly imbuing it, her own identity?

The unity, the universality, the disinterested ambition and the secret of the Church find their principle, of necessity, in the origin of that institution.

I should like to say to my countrymen: “Read, then, the Gospel, the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles. Read the history of the persecutions of the first centuries of the Church, and the story of her martyrs. Take all the pages of the history of the Church, including those blemished by the weakness or the malice of certain men who lived otherwise than they spoke or preached; take also those countless pages wherein Christian charity has been practiced and is being practiced with a tireless and so often maternal solicitude. Distinguish between what is of man and what is of God, and you will end with a social fact absolutely superior and unique. Perhaps, then, you will ask yourself the question: “Has the Creator here revealed Himself?”

Faith is a gift of God, but the act of faith presupposes an information, an investigation. Observe the work of the Church in men’s consciences, and her vitality in the fields of family and social, civic and political life. Jesus Christ said to His disciples, “Seek ye therefore first the kingdom of God and His justice, and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew vi. 33). Weigh those words; they show a sure way to that summit of human grandeur and greatness of mind which is the millenary ideal of Confucianism: “To bring peace to the universe.”

I repeat: independently of the personal deficiencies of those who are members of the Church or of those who hold one or another position of authority in her, independently of errors and the faults which they may commit in daily life, is it imaginable that such an organization ought not to be studied from within, examined and thoroughly investigated, by every reasonable man, and ought not to be respected and desired—without the least prejudice to the full liberty of consciousness—by every society solicitous for the well-being of its members, and by every State zealous for the human greatness of its citizens?

What an incomparable assistance, what a remission of labor and of responsibility for the civil authority it is, to see such a work accomplished in the midst of families and populations. And how greatly ought not that authority to exert its every effort to ensure that an institution of such grandeur, of such rich fertility, all of whose services are known to be disinterested, might flourish in the midst of its peoples, and for the greatest good of all!

That is how, little by little, freely and slowly, the Confucianist tradition and the grace of God led me to enter into a more and more intimate relationship with Christianity and the Catholic Church.

I believe that in the development of the thoughts which, day by day, drew me towards the Church, I remained entirely independent of all external influence. And I have already told you how my wife, that exemplary Christian, had made that approach easier by not speaking to me about it. If she had spoken to me about it, above all if she had insisted, I should have recoiled; for the very nature of the religious act demands above all that it should be freely made.  God shows man his duties but man remains free to obey or disobey. It is ordained that man shall pray the Most High to enlighten him and to give him strength, to perceive his duty and to carry it out.

All this took place within me in evident fulfillment of a divine Providence, to which I received the grace to endeavor to respond.

That is why I said to you above, “My conversion is not a conversion.” It is not I who was converted, under some external influence or by some personal design. “My conversion is a vocation.” God led me, and He called upon me. My task for myself has, then, been extremely simple. It was enough for me to recognize what I saw, what events and circumstances, and the grace of God plainly showed me, and, to this constant and clear vocation, to respond by fulfilling the first duty of conscience, which is to obey God.

It is by obedience to the truth and to duty that I have been unable to do anything else but to become a Christian and a Catholic. May God alone be praised for it!

Can you see why I love this guy?

  • John Guise

    Awesome post. The case of Paul Siu for Canonization, better known as Paul Xu Guangqi, has been started by the diocese in Shanghai. You can still visit his tomb behind the Cathedral which now sits on the site of his ancesterial home which he left to the Church when he died.

    Keep up the good work.
    John Guise
    Shanghai China


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