October 6

A detail from an illustration of Jesuit Father Matteo Ricci is seen at the Beijing Center for Chinese Studies in this 2007 file photo. The sainthood cause of the 17th-century missionary to China has moved to the Vatican after the diocesan phase of the sainthood process closed May 10. Father Ricci was born in Macerata, Italy, in 1552 and died in Beijing May 11, 1610. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec) (May 13, 2013) See RICCI-CAUSE May 13, 2013.

1552 Birth of Matteo Ricci

Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) was an Italian Jesuit missionary to China whose techniques of winning the confidence of the Chinese exemplify the Jesuit approach to foreign evangelism.

In the sixteenth century, China was ruled by the decadent and inward-looking Ming dynasty. Once Ming fleets had explored the southern seas all the way to Africa, but by the late 1500s ocean-going vessels were forbidden and contact with the outside world was discouraged. China considered itself literally the centre of the universe, feeling self-sufficient and superior to all other nations. It had a department of state to deal with barbarians along its borders and another to handle its neighbours such as Korea or Vietnam which were willing to acknowledge Chinese superiority and pay tribute, but it had no notion of dealing with technologically-advanced Western nations which were now starting to intrude into Asia. Christianity, in its Nestorian form, had reached China centuries before through an overland route but Catholic presence was found only in the Portuguese colony of Macau on the southern coast.

Ricci had joined the Society of Jesus in 1571 and volunteered himself as a missionary to Asia seven years later. He was sent to Macau where he studied the Chinese language to prepare for the evangelization of the interior of China. He mastered the script and the literary classics that formed the basis of high culture — this at least allowed him to communicate with the officials whose cooperation the Jesuits would need. But how to make themselves useful in the eyes of the Chinese state that regarded foreigners as inherently useless and inferior? Here Ricci employed mathematical and astronomical skills to great advantage, areas in which the West was forging ahead of Asia. The proper way of marking time was necessary for government and religious decision-making; Ricci’s ability to predict eclipses and regulate timepieces won him and his companions the esteem of the ruling class. Ricci’s geographical knowledge presented world maps to the Chinese for the first time.

Part of the Jesuit approach to Asian missions was to adopt appropriate dress for their clergy; in India they dressed as Buddhist priests; in China they went clothed as court mandarins. Ricci also attempted to explain Christianity in a way that was compatible with Confucianism; here he trod perilously close to heresy. The mendicant orders, the Dominicans and Franciscans, who saw themselves as missionary rivals to the Jesuits, complained to Rome about this alleged syncretism and a lengthy controversy erupted, one that hampered evangelism.

Ricci was eventually allowed to travel to the Ming capital in Beijing where established a Catholic cathedral and made some prominent converts. He died there in 1610 and his grave is now a tourist attraction. Efforts are being made to have Ricci named a saint.

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