Sounds Unheard: China Goes Religious?

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This morning buildings in Beijing, Bangkok, and Hanoi shook. It was a 7.5 magnitude earthquake and thousands are dead.

It could be said this was the second time in a week’s span the earth quaked in China. The first time was less dangerous and less dramatic — actually, most people in the West don’t even know it occurred.

But five days after the fact, the diplomatic reverberations of a historic concert performed by the China Philharmonic Orchestra inside the Vatican and in the presence of Pope Benedict XVI can still be heard in the halls of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing, here in Rome, and in diplomatic offices around the world.

When a press representative contacted me about interviewing Chinese “maestro” Long Yu about his upcoming musical performance in the Vatican, I was incredulous. For almost 60 years official diplomatic ties between the Vatican and China have been broken. The Vatican’s many private and public criticisms of the Communist government for its continued infractions against human rights and against religious liberty in particular, have been rebuffed by Beijing as interference in the country’s internal affairs. The stickiest point of relations has been China’s insistence on appointing (or at least approving) its own Roman Catholic bishops.

Looking again at the interview invitation in my hand, I wondered what could have changed so quickly and quietly in the often frigid relationship. At this point, still no mention of the event was on the Pope’s public calendar. In fact, I found no trace of the upcoming event on the Internet —and the concert was less than two weeks away! Was this hastily planned? No way.

More importantly, I wondered why the Chinese government would now be interested in, and why the Vatican would agree to, such a show of mutual goodwill. I knew Pope Benedict had set as a major goal of his pontificate improving relations with China while not giving up on demands for religious liberty. Was this a sign of outright diplomatic success, no strings attached? Probably not. I also knew China was executing a full-court press in the arena of public opinion in preparation for the 2008 Beijing Games. Was Beijing trying to manipulate the Pope and his moral authority by getting the Vatican on its side? Maybe. Were the Pope and his collaborators aware of that possibility? Surely.

I accepted the interview offer with the goal of listening to the “maestro’s” point of view on all of these quandaries, knowing well his talking points would have only relative significance because of the close supervision of the Chinese government. We sat together in the lobby of his hotel, on the outskirts of Rome. His press representative — a man with a British accent — sat with us, mostly in attentive silence. I will leave to your own judgment the meaning and value of the following quotes from orchestra conductor, Long Yu, to whom I am grateful for the undeserved kindness he showed to me:

• “Obviously this is a purely music travel to the Vatican, but I do hope this travel brings a new future to both sides.”

• “I’m not a politician, so I don’t know if what we are doing is necessary for the Olympic Games, because what I am doing has nothing to do with politics. But I have a personal wish for both sides, it doesn’t matter, they should get a better understanding of each other. Misunderstanding makes us lose chances to move things forward.”

• “Sometimes people should understand China more, culturally and philosophically, from China’s side as well. This trip is purely a music trip, but this trip can probably, I hope, make some special meeting point for the future. It will bring people some things to think about, not just the standard of what we think of the other side.”

• “The whole story of how this came about starts about three years ago.” “We are very lucky to have the concert today.” “It is very complicated to say how it came about” “It’s hard to explain.”

• “People need to understand the generation of Chinese of today is different than when we were born in the 60s or 70s and it is different than the Chinese of tomorrow.”

• “People who are talking about things that need to change in China, I want them to come to China. They will see the past China is different than today’s China and the future China.” “Of course we have this or that problem, but the major part is that China is developing the country, not only economically.” “China is definitely going in the right direction.”

• “If you really think you want to discuss things about China, then come to China and talk to the people.” I don’t wan to say China is perfectly there, but everywhere has problems. We just need to be positive.”

The concert has come and gone. Now what?

I waited to write about this event until now because I needed the kind of perspective that comes only with time.

Before going on I must say, leaving all politics aside (a refreshing exercise), the music was brilliant. The orchestra’s execution of Mozart’s “Requiem” was flawless, at least to my untrained ear. Watching and listening to one hundred and fifty Chinese musicians interpret and sing explicitly religious and European music in the Vatican and in the presence of the strongest voice for global Christianity today could have made even the greatest of sceptics suspend judgment about the long term value of this event.

The choir sang in Latin, “Exaudi, exaudi orationem meam (Hear, hear my prayer).” And in the only Greek words preserved from the ancient liturgy, they pleaded melodiously, “Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison (Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy).” And then back to Latin, “Salva me, fons pietatis (Save me, o fount of mercy).”

Diplomatic maneuvers are more cumbersome to evaluate than the sound of music, but as long as we live in this valley of tears, I’m afraid its value cannot be ignored.

Here’s what went down:

At the end of the concert, Pope Benedict directed some words to the musicians, and to the “organizers” of the event. He notes three things in particular: 1) "the interest shown by your orchestra and choir in European religious music." 2) a special thought for those of your fellow citizens who share faith in Jesus and are united through a particular spiritual bond with the Successor of Peter." And most poignantly, 3) I send my greetings, through you, to all the people of China as they prepare for the Olympic Games, an event of great importance for the entire human family."

Pope Benedict XVI had no obligation to mention the Olympics. He did so willingly. In the context of his general approach to diplomacy and dialogue, I think he is sending this message: the best way to get China to open itself to the world (and to human rights and religious liberty), is for the world to open itself to the Chinese people, while never failing to use the new overture to speak the truth in love. Notice in this vein how his words about the Olympics are directed not to the government host, but rather to “the people of China as they prepare for the Olympic Games, an event of great importance for the entire human family.” I am sure many millions of Chinese who watched the concert (widely promoted by the government), whether Christian or Communist, are now friends of Benedict. Neither a small nor insignificant feat! Will they now begin to read his writings? I hope so.

The friendly Vatican hand of hospitality which reached out to China received immediate promises of diplomatic payback. Spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, Qin Gang, recently issued a statement to the press qualifying the concert as “a big success” and saying China is now willing to improve relations with the Vatican. In his own words, “we would like to further conduct constructive dialogue with the Vatican based on relative principles so as to push bilateral ties toward normalization.”

Normalization would suggest reform — a better life for Christians in China.

Time will tell whether music and sport can do the work of politicians.

What’s your guess?

God bless, Father Jonathan

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Father Jonathan Morris is author of the new book, “The Promise: God’s Purpose and Plan for when Life Hurts”. For information go to