Awarded Honorary Doctorate
The School of Theology of Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., conferred an honorary doctorate in theology upon Abp. Savio Hon Tai-fai, SDB, in an academic ceremony on November 8, 2012. The ceremony took place in the University’s Immaculate Conception Chapel and was attended by a couple of hundred seminarians and seminary faculty, including 11 Salesians.
The archbishop was honored for his dedication to the theological formation of priests, his translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church into Chinese, his service on the International Theological Commission, and his service to the Church as secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.
Abp. John J. Myers of Newark presided over the ceremony, which was coordinated by Msgr. Joseph Reilly, rector of the School of Theology. The Pontifical Mission Societies in the United States was also involved in the planning and sponsored a reception for the archbishop following the ceremony. Abp. Myers joined Dr. Gabriel Esteban, president of the School of Theology, in presenting the degree.
After receiving his honorary doctorate, Abp. Hon gave an address entitled “Love and Wisdom: Cardinal Costantini’s Experience in China.” Abp. Celso Costantini was the first apostolic delegate to China (1922-1933), and in that office he displayed true missionary wisdom.
Abp. Hon began his talk by referring to the Summer Palace in Beijing, also called the Garden of Perfect Splendor, which was reputed to compare favorably with any natural or man-made beauty in the West. Yet it was burned by the British and French in 1860, its ruins becoming for the Chinese people a symbol of colonial oppression.
Arriving in China, Costantini already understood this, and his devoted himself to separating Christianity and its missionary activity from anything related to Western imperialism. “The proclamation of Christ,” he said, “should go hand in hand with healing the people.”
In one of his writings, the apostolic delegate recounted how he had gone into a pagoda on one occasion and observed many dry, fallen leaves within its precincts. This led him to a reflection on those leaves (foglie in Italian), producing for him the four F’s of missionary wisdom.
1. Formation of the people. The Chinese should be formed in authentic faith without any contamination of colonialism. They should be formed to appreciate their own country and culture.
2. Fostering their religious arts. Costantini was himself an artist, and he observed at once that European architecture, e.g. in the churches, didn’t fit the Chinese character; it was insulting to the Chinese, and thus an obstacle to missionary activity. Their own styles could be adapted appropriately for Christian purposes.
3. Friendship with all. A virtuous man’s character is strengthened by his friends. Friendship could be considered a means that God provides for the improvement of human beings. Friends help one learn self-discipline.
4. Faith in God. The Christian faith enlarged Costantini’s heart. He found that the proclamation of Jesus Christ was more powerful when combined with Chinese wisdom. So he aimed at an intercultural synthesis between East and West. He called Christ the tao who recapitulates all wisdom; tao is literally “the way,” but it could be given also the sense of the Greek logos. Anticipating the developments of Vatican II, Costantini looked for manifestations of Christ in Chinese culture.
Respecting the culture and character of the Chinese is the only way to lead them to Christ, Costantini believed. The Garden of Perfect Splendor has long disappeared. But Costantini’s dry, fallen leaves have lasted, forming a carpet on which one may walk toward Christ.
Following Abp. Hon’s address, Abp. Myers offered a few words of appreciation, also noting that in his capacity as the ecclesiastical ordinary of the Turks and Caicos Islands he comes under the jurisdiction of Abp. Hon’s Roman dicastery.
After the ceremony Abp. Hon and the other dignitaries mingled for some time with the seminarians and faculty outside the chapel. Abp. Hon particularly enjoyed speaking with his fellow Salesians and happily posed for several photos with them. He regretted that he couldn’t stop by the Salesian house of formation in Orange because his hosts had him on a tight schedule.