Because Once Upon A Time, The Premier of China Was A Catholic

Because Once Upon A Time, The Premier of China Was A Catholic August 22, 2010

Imagine that you woke up to the news this morning that a former President of the United States, say Jimmy Carter for example, has just held a press conference saying that he has entered the Abbey at Gethsemane to become a Cistercian monk. Would you be flabbergasted? Amazed? Incredulous? Or would you be intrigued? That’s how I felt when I learned the news that I am going to share with you today.

I am humbled, though,  to report the following story to you, but here goes. Just like the title of this post claims, at one time the Premier of China was a Catholic. And I’m not talking about the Island of Formosa either. I mean mainland China, before Mao Zedong took over. Why, you may ask, is this humbling to learn?

Well, isn’t it a bit like being told that Mars is a habitable planet today? And that there is also plenty of oxygen and water there too, and everything else needed to support life? This would seem unbelievable, wouldn’t it? At least to an ordinary guy like me, it does.

Because, sure, there are a few “eccentric” people in China who become Christians, or so you may have thought. A smattering of Catholics and Protestants, but get real Frank—everyone knows that Catholicism is just never going to gain any traction in China. Nor will it among Chinese people who have emigrated to other countries around the world. You are probably thinking that I am just wasting my time.

There was a time in my life, before I became a Catholic, when I would have nodded my head in agreement with you. But not now. Not after I have met Wu Li, and John C.H. Wu. A friend, whom I  correspond with infrequently, tipped me off to this story and I have to share it with you now. My friend just mentioned a few names, though, who were acquaintances of John Wu and no further information.  But when I did the digging on who these men are,  and when I unearthed what you will read here about one of them, I was just thrown completely for a loop.

Truth really is stranger than fiction, and this post is the proof of that statement. So who is the debonair looking guy in the photograph above? His name is Lou Tseng-Tsiang, former Premier of China and it is my distinct pleasure to introduce him to you.

He was close friends with John C.H. Wu. And like John,  he Anglicized his name. His given name is actually Lu Zhengxiang, or Lu Cheng-Hsiang. I’m going to outdo myself and give our Chinese readers the courtesy of seeing his name in simplified Chinese,  陸征祥; and in traditional Chinese, 陸徵祥. Either way, we can all just call him Lou.

As it turns out, he had been the Premier of China not once, but twice. No big deal, maybe, if we were talking about a native of Spain or Italy, right? But China? If I weren’t writing these words right now, I wouldn’t even believe it myself.

As the Premier, also known as the Prime Minister, it seems he was a failure. His political connections were shallow and the other, ahem, religious problem that he had, was a thorn in his side too.  His real success, though, was as a diplomat. Lou served as the Foreign Minister of China early in the 20th Century. Think “Secretary of State” and you will get the picture. A very high level cabinet post. He made a lot of hay back after the Great War ended when he refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Here is the humility check for me again, because I too forgot all about that episode. And my history book also neglected to mention that the guy from China who refused to sign was also a Catholic. Did yours?

Have I intrigued you yet, dear reader? The story gets even, dare I say it, more amazing. What follows is an article that I found in London’s Catholic Herald, written by Roy Peachey. They published this piece just last year and it appears in italics below, with my commentary in plain text. Fasten your seatbelts and get ready for a very enlightening ride.

Born in 1871 into a Protestant family in Shanghai, Lou became a pupil at the local school of foreign languages. After further studies in Beijing, he joined the Chinese legation in St Petersburg as a translator, before eventually entering the diplomatic service in his own right.

OK, so Lou is providentially born into a Protestant Christian family in China. I know I was astounded when I learned of this too. Yes, folks, there are actually Christian families living in China that happen to be Chinese. Who knew? Were you thinking that they are all Godless Communists? And Lou was gifted with the ability to easily learn foreign languages, too.

He became ambassador to Belgium and Russia and then, on the foundation of the Chinese Republic in 1911, was appointed China’s foreign minister and shortly afterwards, for a brief period, its Prime Minister.

See? I’m not making this up. And it didn’t take long for his gifts to be recognized, did it?

It was as Foreign Minister, though, that he led the Chinese delegation to the Versailles peace conference. The situation he faced was an extremely difficult one. Germany had seized part of Shandong province in 1897 but then lost it to Japan during the Great War. The Japanese, who claimed to have seized the territory on China’s behalf, used it instead as a bargaining tool to gain further influence over the weakened Chinese government.

Perhaps you’ve forgotten all of the history here. What gifts I don’t have in languages, I do have for remembering world history.  The Opium Wars ring any bells for you? Or the Great Powers carving up the globe and hauling around the White Man’s Burden? The great White Fleet projecting U.S. power all over the globe? The Boxer Rebellion? Lou never forgot this uprising because during that turmoil, his mentor and confidant, Shu King-Shen, was beheaded. Long before that occurred, though, Shu had counseled Lou with the following words,

“Europe’s strength is found not in her armaments, nor in her knowledge—it is found in her religion… Observe the Christian faith. When you have grasped its heart and its strength, take them and give them to China.”

Lou took those words to heart, as you will see. What a fascinating time in the history of the world. It always seems so, when viewed from the present, doesn’t it?

The Allies, seeing Japan as their stronger partner and ignoring the fact that thousands of Chinese laborers had died on the Western front, allowed Japan to hang on to the parts of China they had occupied. Faced with such diplomatic humiliation, Lou refused to sign the treaty. He was the only delegate to do so.

Group think? Lou said, “not on my watch.” Need I say that this stance took moral courage? The government of China entrusted Lou, a Catholic no less (!) to fight for the best interests of his native country, and that is what he most certainly did. And guess what? There is even a movie about this whole episode in history entitled My 1919 which is where this photograph comes from. Isn’t Lou handsome? I’m not sure who the lady is though because,

After the war Lou gradually withdrew from frontline politics, resigning as Foreign Minister to concentrate on famine relief, before leaving China altogether in 1922 to help his Belgian wife, Berthe Bovy recover from a serious illness.

Yes, you read that right, he was married to a nice Catholic girl from Belgium. Everyone in Lou’s family was turning cartwheels over that, er, development. This guy is a real pioneer, yes?

As a Catholic, Berthe had not been the wife Lou’s parents would have chosen for him and, as a foreigner, she had not met the approval of his political superiors either. Nonetheless, Lou was convinced that “our spirits and our hearts were made for one another” and the marriage proved to be an extremely happy one.

Are you liking my friend Lou yet? I mean, sheesh! He is a hopeless romantic and a renaissance man for crying out loud. A man of honor too. I told you this story was good! But trouble awaits, and they remained childless because,

By 1922, though, Berthe required a period of recuperation in Switzerland, where Lou served briefly as a delegate to the League of Nations and as ambassador to Switzerland. However, his wife’s health never recovered and she died in 1926.

Here “it” comes, another Crazy Ivan from a prominent person. But this time, it is in a spectacularly good and unexpected way.

In response, Lou decided to withdraw from public life entirely and, having become a Catholic 15 years earlier, in 1911, he entered the novitiate at the Abbey of Saint-André in his wife’s native country. There he lived an enclosed life, studied theology and, eventually, became a priest.

Whaat?! From Premier, to Foreign Minister, to Benedictine monk? Whoa—Gotcha, didn’t he? Me too! Imagine my fictional press release from President Carter again and that is probably what anyone “in the know” in China felt like at the time; angry, flabbergasted, incredulous, and amazed, and did I mention perplexed? But wait, there is more good news.

Any dreams of living out the rest of his days in monastic peace were shattered by the outbreak of World War II and the Nazi occupation of Belgium. Devastating as these events were, they marked a new phase of life for the man who was now known as Dom Pierre Célestin.

Oh, and you thought becoming a Religious would solve all your problems? Get real people. Enter the Nazis from stage left,

When the abbey was requisitioned by the Nazis in 1942, he moved to Bruges where he began, tentatively at first, to share the fruits of his experiences. In 1943, despite Nazi harassment, he began to write Souvenirs et Pensées, a book which was soon translated into English as Ways of Confucius and of Christ.

Paydirt! Another book, originally written in French, that I absolutely must read.  And unfortunately, it is nigh on impossible to find.  I know another guy, whom I love, that shared at least one word from that title of Lou’s book when he wrote his own apology for the Christian faith. Do you remember it too? Pensées, by Blaise Pascal.  Lou’s “thoughts,” though, were published in 1948 and, we find that,

Not all of his political judgments have stood the test of time but his reflections on his own religious vocation and on what he called the “Christian vocation of China” are deeply moving. His ecumenical spirit is also impressive. There was no question for Lou but that “Protestantism has been for me a stage without which I think I should not have been able to reach Catholicism.”

I can heartily agree with that statement too. I wouldn’t be where I am today if my mother hadn’t raised me as a Protestant Christian. Does anyone else agree with that statement? Show of hands please.

However, at a time when doubt is still sometimes cast on the ability of Catholics in China to be both fully Chinese and fully Christian, perhaps the most significant part of the book is the section where he explains how his countrymen might “feel at ease in an institution of which, today still, the external appearance, Latin and western, does not completely express the internal and profound universality.”

I think I said something to that effect, too, in a post I wrote the other day. And did you hear the readings at Mass today? They too verify the universality of God’s grace and the call of all to become faithful. Better re-hitch the wagons, fellas, because there is work to be done! Take note of what Lou says next.

Part of his answer was liturgical. Twenty years before Vatican II, Lou called for the introduction of Chinese into the liturgy. However, arguing for continuity as well as reform, he wanted to see the use of the Chinese literary language in the liturgy because of “its deep beauty, its vigor and elegance.”

At that time, the Mass was in Latin only, see? Lou was ahead of his time, it seems. But today? His idea of Mass and the liturgy being said in the vernacular has been embraced. If you believe that Catholics in China, or anywhere else for that matter, should be forced to go to Mass where only Latin is used, well, Lou would argue otherwise.

Another part of his answer lay in his uniting a deep personal devotion to the papacy – a devotion based on Confucian concepts of filial piety – with practical suggestions for reform in Rome, based in part on the study of Chinese language and culture.

Wow, who does this guy think he is? Rest easy, folks, because Lou is no Hans Küng, as you’ll see. And it is not disrespectful to advocate changes that will help the Church either. As a diplomat, and Lou was a masterful one, he acts properly, as you will see by his next action.

However, Lou was no armchair critic. Even in his 70s, he hoped to return home to be part of a Christian monastic revival in China. Prevented from doing so by the ongoing civil war, he died in January 1949, shortly before the Communist victory.

That bold emphasis is mine. You know what? In the East, it isn’t scandalous for a person to chuck everything, leave the world, and become a monk. But in the West? Well, what do you think? But if more people both in the East, and in the West, knew of the depths of our Faith, and that others like Lou, and Wu Li have gone before them? Perhaps many, many more souls would come to the Faith as well.

Excuse me for interrupting the narrative still, but one day I am going to go to Belgium again for two reasons. First, to see where Lou is buried, and secondly, to hoist a frothy glass of Trappist beer in his honor. My wife will be ecstatic about this news (no timeline determined yet, so, remain calm honey).  And one day, the monastic revival that Lou envisioned will take place in China. You don’t believe it? A word from Our King (Matthew 19:26) should suffice,

“For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”

Mr. Peachey, God bless him, wraps this story up with the following reflection on the life of my newest Catholic friend,

Impelled by a deep sense of humility and a profound spirituality, the man who had once refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles therefore ended his life as a titular abbot in Belgium, praying, in the words which ended Ways of Confucius and of Christ, that God might “in all the nations of the earth, be honored and glorified.”

So there you have it. The true story of a beautiful soul named Lou Tseng-Tsiang aka Dom Pierre Célestin. A man who went from being the Premier of China to being a Benedictine monk and priest.

It is amazing what one can experience in a lifetime when it is dedicated to the service of the One True King. I can honestly say that I am looking very forward to meeting him in person one day. In the meantime, though, I will try to unearth his books and hope that others will help me try to do the same.

You can read more about Lou Tseng-Tsiang, in greater detail, on Wikipedia. And you may find the original article from the Catholic Herald here. And more detail on Lou’s life can be read at the Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval website and from this Google preview of a book on the history of Christians in China written by Jean-Pierre Charbonnier as well. Last, but not least, is a link to the U.S. Catholic China Bureau, at Seaton Hall University, where John C.H. Wu taught.

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