On May 14, it was the 95th birthday of Father Angelo S. Lazzarotto of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME), to whom my warmest wishes go, together with those of many friends and admirers from all over the world.
The well-known PIME missionary and sinologist spends his days at the home for the elderly missionaries of Lecco, northern Italy, with serenity and good health. On February 17, at the Missionary Centre in Milan, during the conference, Another China, numerous friends, missionaries and students of the PIME seminary celebrated Father Lazzarotto’s birthday—somewhat in advance—reading a beautiful message sent by Fernando Cardinal Filoni, with whom he had collaborated for many years.
Father Lazzarotto arrived in Hong Kong in early December 1956. He worked in different capacities both in Hong Kong and Rome and beginning in the 1970s, he was a pioneer of the first contacts with Catholics in China.
He is among the members of the (jokingly) so-called “gang of four”, that is, four missionaries-sinologists who began the first, very difficult, contacts with what remained of the Catholic Church in China, after the dark years of the communist persecution and the heydays of the cultural revolution.
The other three were Belgian Father Jerome Heyndricks of the Scheut Missionaries; Frencc Father Jean Charbonnier of the Paris Foreign Missions; and Polish Verbist Father Roman Malek, the youngest of all, to which we will return.
In 1980, acting on the mandate of then-Bishop John Baptist Wu (later made cardinal), then-Father John Tong Hon, Maryknoll missionaries, Father Peter Berry and Father Elmer Würth, together with Father Lazzarotto founded the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong, for decades the most informed body studying the Catholic Church in China.
The 95th birthday of Father Lazzarotto fell within the year of PIME’s 150th anniversary of mission in mainland China (1870 to 2020). Unfortunately, the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic disrupted the rich scheduled programme. It would had included an event devoted to the memory of Father Giancarlo Politi, another important PIME missionary in Hong Kong and China, who died on 23 December 2019.
Father Politi himself had contributed with an important study to the Festschrift (a book honouring a respected person, especially an academic and presented during their lifetime) which Father Malek and myself had dedicated to Father Lazzarotto exactly 10 years ago, or on 15 May 2010. In that volume, Father Politi had published a precious list of all the Chinese bishops, starting from the first in 1674, to 2009. It was the result of years of painstaking research and it is now an important point of reference for scholars in the field.
The volume in honour of Father Lazzarotto (published in Sankt Augustin, Germany, by Monumenta Serica) includes essays by 28 scholars from all over the world. The tabula gratulatoria (list of congratulations) is signed by 63 international distinguished personalities. Gerolamo Fazzini sketched Father Lazzarotto’s profile, while I made a list of his publications: I counted 417 of them!
However, the list is not complete, as Father Lazzarotto, a truly tireless and generous scholar, did not stop publishing more books, essays and articles.
On a personal note, It is with some emotion that I would like to recall Father Malek, who died prematurely on 27 November 2019. He initiated the project in honour of Father Lazzarotto. He insisted on including me in it and we worked together very intensively. We met in Sankt Augustin in Germany, Hong Kong and Italy, doing everything discreetly, in order to surprise Father Lazzarotto.
To present the Festschrift we organised a conference, on 15 May 2010, entitled, The door of friendship, with the central prolusion entrusted to the Roman sinologist, Elisabetta Corsi (La Sapienza). On that occasion we celebrated Father Lazzarotto’s 85th birthday, idealistically associating him with the founder of the Chinese mission, Jesuit Father Matteo Ricci—only four prior, it was the 400 anniversary of his death in Beijing (11 May 1610).
Friendship, a fundamental theme of today’s missionary thinking and style, has characterised not only Father Ricci’s mission, but also Father Lazzarotto’s approach to the Chinese people and Church. His friendship, moderation and sympathy did not prevent him from objectively assessing the oppressive nature of Chinese religious policy.
Father Lazzarotto, and all of us, his friends, were saddened and dumbfounded when, in the summer of 2011, the authorities stopped him at Beijing airport and prevented him from entering China, forcing him returning to Milan. He was then 86-years-old and it was his last chance to visit China. Never did a restrictive measure seem so unjustified and disproportionate.
To overcome the unpleasantness, Father Lazzarotto continued to follow the situation in China, publishing in 2012 What future for the Church in China? (also published in English and Chinese), many more essays, and continuing to conduct conferences and interviews on China.
On 25 November 2015, the Catholic University of Milan conferred to upon him the Matteo Ricci Award. In the motivation, we read that he offered his life, both through his years spent on the mission field and through his numerous writings, to the dialogue between Catholic and Chinese culture and to the promotion of dialogue between peoples.
I called Father Lazzarotto on the day of his 95th birthday. He replied with impressive words of faith and trust. His mission is now prayer and the gift of himself, waiting, as he said, for a “call” that can also arrive as soon as “tomorrow.”