By Gianni Criveller PIME
On 23 December 2019, Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) missionary Giancarlo Politi passed away in Lecco, Milan. He was 77-years-old, and had been infirm for a few years.
Father Politi served the Church and the people of Hong Kong from 1970 to 1993. He was first engaged in pastoral and missionary work in the New Territories’ parishes of Yuen Long and Tsuen Wan. In 1986, he became a correspondent for AsiaNews and devoted himself full time to research about and to visiting the Church in China. It was the season of long and even adventurous trips to China, looking for men and women, priests, bishops, nuns and Christian communities. It was a truly pioneering work. News from China was still scarce as, until a few years earlier, many thought that there were no more Catholics in China!
Father Politi was among the first to document the survival of the Catholic faithful, priests and bishops in China. He diligently built a network of relationships, which allowed him to precisely reconstruct the list of bishops still alive in China, and the line of apostolic succession. In this way, the Holy See was able to be informed and make important pastoral and canonical decisions about the special situation of the Catholic hierarchy in China.
Bishops from both the official and unofficial communities had preserved the apostolic succession and were validly ordained, even if, in the case of a number of official bishops, they had no papal mandate.
In the spring of 2018, Annie Lam and Maria Yeung, two experts on Church in China from the Diocese of Hong Kong, visited Father Politi in Lecco. He was already seriously ill, but their visit moved him deeply and for a couple of days he gave his best. He managed to communicate and remember things, as he hadn’t done for a long time.
Annie and Maria were among the first to accompany Father Politi on his pioneering journeys on the Chinese continent in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
In those crucial years, he was one of the leading experts on China Church. In 2006 he organised an important conference in Triuggio, Milan, on the Catholic Church in China with experts from all over the world. He was able to secure the participation of speakers and witnesses from China.
It was an important moment of dialogue for an assessment of the situation of the Church in China. At that time, however paradoxical it may seem, the perspectives were more open and hopeful than today.
A less known contribution to China Church by Father Politi was his support of young Chinese men and women in pursuing theological studies in Europe, Rome in particular. In Hong Kong, he was a close collaborator of the representatives of the Holy See, which opened a Study Mission in Hong Kong in those crucial 1980s.
Father Politi himself described his work as a Church expert in China in an article he published in 2011 in Tripod, the magazine of the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong.
In the Festschrift that in 2010, Roman Malek (who passed away just few weeks before Politi) and I dedicated to Father Angelo Lazzarotto, Father Politi listed the names of all Chinese-born bishops (1674 to 2009) and their consecrators. It is a huge contribution to the knowledge of Chinese Catholic history.
Father Politi published many more articles and books, some dedicated to the martyrs under communist regime, such as those who testified their faithfulness to the Catholic faith after 1949. To Father Politi’s credit, this is an issue often omitted in many accounts of recent history of Catholic China.
In 2001, Father Politi was called to work at the Propaganda Fide’s (the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples) China Office. He made some innovations in the slow secular mechanisms of the Vatican.
According to Gianfranco Rota Graziosi, who was responsible for the China office of the Vatican Secretariat of State for decades, the letter of Pope Benedict XVI to Chinese Catholics in 2007 was mad under the initiative of Father Politi. He called for an intervention that would clarify the complex situation of the Church in China.
However, Father Politi had been in Rome only for two years when PIME superior assigned him to the international missionary seminary in Monza. He spent nine years there and it was his last important service to the missionary cause.
Alzheimers Disease, a grave and progressive illness, marked his last years. Father Politi faced it with serenity and strength.
In an interview with Dr. Silvia Vitali, that can still be partially viewed on YouTube (youtube.com/watch?v=N_KHCnf0AW8), he spoke with exemplary courage: “We are fathers, mothers or brothers, even when sick. Don’t cry on yourself. Medicines are only part of life. What matters is the beauty of existence..”
As a priest and missionary, Father Politi cultivated the study of the Word of God and the practice of Lectio Divina.
In Hong Kong, particularly during the period in which he was parish priest in Yuen Long, he introduced catechumens and faithful to the Word of God in such a profound way that affected their lives. Many of them still remember with gratitude that journey of faith.
He used to reserve Saturday morning for prayer and meditation on the Word, preparing the homily with accuracy. In Monza he started the Hour of the Word for the seminarians and numerous other interested persons, an initiative that continues today.
Born in 1942, Giancarlo Politi grew up in the community of Castelletto of Abbiategrasso near Milan. He initially studied in the diocesan seminary, but later moved to PIME, where he was ordained as a priest in 1966.
His original destination was India, but troubles in obtaining a visa stopped him. Hence, he was assigned to Hong Kong and the Chinese people became his new family.
John Cardinal Tong Hon, apostolic administrator of Hong Kong, as founder and director of the Holy Spirit Study Centre, held him in high esteem and sent a heartfelt message of condolences.
It is indeed a sign of appreciation for Father Giancarlo Politi’s great contribution to the Chinese Catholic community.