Born into a cultured Egyptian Catholic family, Cotta began his studies for the priesthood in Lebanon, then entered the Vincentian seminary in Paris, where he began a lifelong friendship with Vincent Lebbe. Ordained in 1898, he was sent to Madagascar and barely escaped death during the bloody Malagasy uprising against French rule. In 1906 he was assigned to China and went to Tientsin (Tianjin), where he was reunited with Lebbe. Like Lebbe, he became a staunch advocate of the Chinese and found himself increasingly opposed to the elitist mentality prevailing in the missionary community.
In 1914, at a meeting of missionary bishops and specialists in Peking (Beijing), Cotta spoke boldly in favor of giving greater responsibility to Chinese priests and preparing them for the episcopacy. Two years later, when the French consul in Tientsin, in the name of the French protectorate on Christian missions, attempted to annex a piece of land linking the French concession to the cathedral, Cotta and Lebbe sided openly with the Chinese in the city to oppose the measure. They also informed the Vatican of the collusion between the missionary bishop and the consul. Cotta followed up with a thirty-page memoir to Cardinal Serafini, prefect of Propaganda Fide, in which he argued for the establishment of a Chinese episcopacy and a church truly “acclimatized” to China. The document served as a principal source of inspiration and information for the missionary encyclical Maximum illud from Pope Benedict XV in 1919 and paved the way for Pope Pius XI to ordain six Chinese bishops in 1926.
Meanwhile, the attitude of Cotta had not only angered the French government but caused much resentment against him among the missionary leadership in China. In December 1920 he was recalled from China by his superiors and never allowed to return. In 1922 he withdrew from the Vincentians and joined the Maryknoll Society in the United States. He left a profound influence as a professor at the major seminary in Maryknoll, New York, and as a spiritual director for the seminarians and for the Maryknoll sisters.
This article is reprinted from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, Macmillan Reference USA, copyright (c) 1998 Gerald H. Anderson, by permission of The Gale Group; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan. All rights reserved.
- Raymond J. de Jaegher, “The First Chinese Bishops and Father Cotta,” World Mission 6 (1955): 267-277; “Father Anthony Cotta,” in Robert E. Sheridan, ed, Profiles of Twelve Maryknollers, (1963), chap. 4; Claude Soetens, ed., Recueil des Archives Vincent Lebbe. Pour l’Eglise chinoise, vol. 1, La Visite apostotique des missions de Chine, 1919-1920 (1982) and vol. 3, L’Encyclique Maximum illud (1983). These two volumes contain many letters from and to Cotta, his memoir to Cardinal Serafini, as well as a detailed analysis of his role as a missionary figure.