SHU Receives Chinese Artifact

News Story:

A replica of the earliest known artifact linking the practice of Christianity to ancient China will rest permanently at Sacred Heart University, a gift from Sr. Nancy Charlesworth, SSMN, and the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur. Sr. Charlesworth received it seven years ago during a trip to the Orient to mark the Great Jubilee, the celebration of the year 2000 in the Catholic Church.

On Sept. 11, University officials unveiled the rubbing made from a Chinese stele, or marble tablet. Only a handful of the rubbings are housed at institutions in the United States. The framed rubbing features about 1,700 Chinese characters in white against a background of black. The original stele in Xi’an, China, dates back to 781 A.D. during the Tang Dynasty and stands about 10 feet tall.

Sr. Charlesworth, director of the Office of Immigration Services in Bridgeport, called the original stele “a religious document, a piece of art and a piece of history.”

“It’s a very precious part of the history of the Catholic Church. It’s something holy; it’s not the Bible, but it is a Christian credal expression of Chinese people in that epoch,” said Sr. Charlesworth, who has a master’s degree in religious education. “The idea of this being the first institutional visibility of the Church in China, the first catechism, the first written word in this form, I found just overwhelming,” she said.

Sr. Charlesworth said she was happy to give the rubbing to University President Anthony J. Cernera and SHU “because of your commitment to the Catholic intellectual tradition.”

The University community works to preserve, transmit and develop the Catholic intellectual tradition, and Dr. Cernera said Sr. Charlesworth’s gift will help with the first task. Additionally, he said, the rubbing will serve as a reminder as to just how deep and far back Christian roots extend. “Through this gift, you help us to fulfill our responsibility as the stewards of that tradition and you help us to expand our consciousness about where our roots are and what those roots are inviting us to today as we live as a global church for the first time….This gift will help us to open our minds and our hearts and expand our horizons,” Dr. Cernera said.

“We tend to think so much of the tradition as being western and we forget it’s a universal religion. This is a universal faith. This tablet is a reminder it is a church of east and west,” said Religious Studies Professor June Anne Greeley, who called the English translation “beautifully written.”

Sr. Charlesworth also gave to Dr. Cernera a framed rubbing from the top of the stele called the crown, which reveals its title, “The Promulgation of the Luminous Religion from Daqin.” Daqin means the west.

Mark Mir,technical services director of the Ricci Institute for Chinese-Western Cultural History at the University of San Francisco, which has on permanent display a rubbing of the same stele, said it was lost for centuries. “Then in the 17th century it was unearthed. The early Jesuits, who were in China at the time, heard about this curious tablet…This was considered quite a revolutionary find when it was uncovered,” he said. “It’s a celebrated object in both China and in the West,” Mr. Mir said.

“It’s very beautifully carved. It’s a very fine example of mid-Tang Dynasty calligraphy and it’s also written in a very beautiful classical Chinese style that tells a lot about Christian religion, about the Book of Genesis, about the origin of the cross and baptism, and so on,” he said.

Sr. Charlesworth said the stele was inaccurately named the Nestorian tablet. Mr. Mir said it really belongs to the Syro-Chaldean Church or Church of the East.

Sr. Marie Julianne Farrington, SSMN, SHU’s special assistant to the president, said the early presence of Christianity in China is remarkable. “The east is central to the future of the Church. There are Chinese Catholics seeking to know that there are people in the rest of the world who are interested in them, and support them in their faith in situations where they fell isolated and sometimes are persecuted,” Sr. Farrington said.