When Belgian Lazarist Father Vincent Lebbe arrived in China in 1901 he had a marked effect on Christianity in the country and in the northeast city of Tianjin in particular.
He was vicar general of the Tianjin diocese which celebrates its centenary this year. Last week it hosted a commemorative symposium in the city, held over two days.
Nearly 100 scholars and guests attended the event and discussed the relevance of Fr. Lebbe’s work in today’s society.
The Belgian missionary, who was known by his Chinese name Lei Mingyuan, embraced the Chinese during an era of colonial occupation.
He was a member of a movement calling for the Church leadership to relinquish the protection of foreign powers and to become truly Chinese.
His advocacy led Pope Benedict XV to issue the missionary encyclical Maximum Illud of 1919, which reminded bishops and superiors of the Catholic missions that their goal must be carried out selflessly as they trained local clergy.
Then in 1926, Pope Pius XI appointed the first batch of native Chinese bishops.
Beforehand, in 1915, Fr. Lebbe published the first Chinese Catholic daily – Yishi Bao (Social Welfare Newspaper) – which was known for its accurate reporting and became widely read in northern China.
The newspaper played a key role in the ‘Lao Xikai Incident’ in 1916 when Fr. Lebbe openly denounced an attempt by the French consul to expand the French concession in Tianjin with the collusion of Church authorities who then removed him from the city and sent him back to Europe.
Fr. Francis Li, an academic dean at the Shaanxi Catholic Seminary in central China, said Fr. Lebbe’s words and deeds were a timely reminder that – above all – it is people who are central to faith and social development.
He pointed to the moral decay in China despite a rapid rise in living standards in recent years.
“There is an urgent need for the Catholic Church to expand its social influence and raise up … ethics to enhance peoples’ morality,” said the priest, who holds a doctorate in dogmatic theology from Germany.
Tianjin diocese, which includes two bishops not recognized by the Chinese government, about 40 priests and 100,000 faithful, has organized several other events to mark its centenary.
The diocese held a Eucharistic Congress in May, an evangelistic assembly in June and a music concert last month. Numerous other events are scheduled to continue until the end of the year.