Pope Benedict XVI highlighted his hope for China

Vatican City, Aug. 7, 2008

Four days before the opening of the Olympic Games, Pope Benedict XVI highlighted his hope for China to welcome the Good News when he visited the birthplace of an Italian missioner who died in the mainland almost 100 years ago.

We know that China is becoming ever more important in political and economic life, and in the life of ideas. It is important that this great country open to the Gospel," the scholar-pope said on Aug. 5. Observers interpreted his remarks as a passionate call for full religious freedom in the mainland, and for China to open fully to Christianity and understand it has nothing to fear from the religion.

The pope had already mentioned China earlier in the week. On Sunday Aug. 3, speaking from a prepared text, he publicly conveyed his good wishes to China and all involved in the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, due to open on Aug. 8.

On Tuesday evening he touched on the sensitive subject of religion in China. On this occasion he spoke without a prepared text, although the daily Italian-language L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, ran the story on the front page of its Aug. 7 edition.

Pope Benedict recognizes China allows a degree of religious freedom, but within limits. He wants to assuage any fears or concerns Chinese authorities have and help them understand how the Gospel can engage in a full and honest dialogue with Chinese culture, and not cause alienation.

The pope pointed to Saint Joseph Freinademetz (1852-1909), who preached the Gospel in China for 29 years, as an example of how Christianity can truly integrate with all that is good in Chinese culture.

He spoke after visiting the house where the saint was born in Oies, a tiny mountain village in northeastern Italy's Val Badia region. The house attracts pilgrims, many from China, but Pope Benedict made his remarks in the village's new church, which resembles a Chinese pagoda.

The saint joined the newly founded Society of the Divine Word in 1879, after being ordained a diocesan priest 14 years earlier. He served in Hong Kong 1879-1881 and then preached in southern Shandong province, eastern China, for 27 years. He survived the anti-foreigner violence of the Boxer revolt, but died of typhoid in 1908 in Daijiazhuang and was buried there. Pope John Paul II canonized him in 2003.

Pope Benedict called the missioner a sign for the future of the Church and told the crowd in the church, "He is a saint of utmost relevance today."

Elaborating, the Holy Father said: "Saint Joseph Freinademetz shows us that the faith is not an alienation for any culture, for any people, because all cultures await Christ and are not destroyed by the Lord; rather, they reach their maturity (in him)."
  Portraits of the saint and historical accounts testify to how much he sought to identify with the Chinese people. He grew a pointed beard and dressed in clothing typical of the time and place. After arriving in China, he never returned home.

"Saint Joseph Freinademetz wanted not only to live and die as a Chinese, but also to remain Chinese in heaven," the pope said. "In this way he ideally identified himself with this people, in the certainty that it would open to faith in Jesus Christ."

Pope Benedict invited the congregation to pray for the saint's encouragement "to go towards Christ, because he alone can unite peoples, only he can unite cultures." He added, "Let us pray too that he may give courage to many young people to dedicate their lives totally to the Lord and to his Gospel."

The village where the saint once lived has only 15 inhabitants today, but 5,000 pilgrims greeted the pope when he arrived by helicopter from the seminary in nearby Bressanone, where he is vacationing.

The visitors' book inside the saint's former house bears the names of many Chinese who came to honor the missioner called Fu Shenfu (priest of happiness), including Divine Word Cardinal Thomas Tien Keng-hsin, the first Chinese cardinal, from 1963.

Pope Benedict added: "May the Lord, through the intercession of Saint Josef Freinademetz, grant many spiritual vocations and open China ever more to faith in Jesus."

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