Communist or socialist countries that restrict missionary activity and religious expression pose particular challenges to the practice of mission today, but countries such as China and Vietnam also have surprising lessons for the Catholic Church, Father Peter C. Phan told the Maryknoll Centennial Symposium this weekend.
China—where Maryknoll’s first missionaries had arrived in 1918—expelled all foreign missionaries in 1949. “But lo and behold, when Christians came back in the 1980s, we found a more vibrant Christianity in China than it was before,” said Phan, professor of theology at Georgetown University. “What we thought would be the end of mission turned out to be the flourishing of mission.”
“What we learned in those 30 to 40 years is that bishops and priests were dispensable,” Phan said with a laugh. “This is also the lesson we learned here during Vatican II. While the bishops were in Rome, the local churches prospered.”
Phan suggested that the distinction between the official and underground churches in China may be a Western lens that is “too limiting, too confining to understanding what is really happening on the ground.”