Blessed Matteo Ricci, SJ?

Pope Francis is reportedly set to proclaim the brilliant 16th century Jesuit and missionary to China a new blessed

Italian journalist and Vatican veteran Sandro Magister reports:

After already having canonized six new saints without waiting for a new miracle to be certified for each of them after their beatification, Pope Francis could soon proclaim another new blessed in accelerated fashion.

The new blessed would be the Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), the brilliant evangelizer of China.

Matteo Ricci is another of Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s favorite early members of the Society of Jesus, together with the Savoyard Peter Faber, whom he has already proclaimed a saint by bending the rules, with what is called the canonization “equivalent.”

But there is another predilection that Pope Francis shares with Matteo Ricci: a fondness for Asia and for China in particular.

Bergoglio has always prized the method Ricci adopted for proclaiming the news of the Gospel to a civilization like that of China, far removed from Christianity by religion and culture.

In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI marked the 400th annivesary of the death of Ricci. Leading up to that event, Dr. Anthony Clark, who has written widely on Catholicism in China, wrote an Ignatius Insight piece, “Weaving a Profound Dialogue between West and East”, on Ricci:

Pope Benedict XVI has asked the bishop of Macerata, Italy, Claudio Giuliordi, to prepare for a Jubilee Year in honor of the four-hundred-year anniversary of Ricci’s death; Ricci died on May 11, 1610, at his small church in Beijing’s busy Xuanwu district. His impact on China was so great that after his death the Ming (1368-1644) ruler, Emperor Wanli (r. 1563-1620), gave imperial land in Beijing to the Jesuits for his burial. Fr. Ricci was the first non-Chinese ever allowed to be interred inside the Middle Kingdom. His tomb at the Zhalan Cemetery, located today in the campus of the Beijing Communist Administrative College, is an actively visited sight in China’s capital, and when Chinese Catholics pass his statue at Beijing’s South Cathedral, they bow and offer him a short prayer.

In China, Matteo Ricci is hailed as the Western world’s greatest “foreign guest” to China for his contributions to Chinese science, cartography, calendrics, mathematics, and philosophy. While China’s list of accolades does not generally include an appreciation for Ricci’s religious beliefs, the Church remembers him as the “father” of the China mission, one of the founders of Catholic apologetics, a controversial accomodationist, and one of history’s most brilliant thinkers.

One thing is certain, in the fields of Sinology, map making, mission history, Sino-Western relations, linguistics, and Chinese history, among the first and most significant names conjured will be Matteo Ricci; his legacy in world history is enormous, even if too often overlooked or underappreciated.

Of Ricci’s missionary methods, Clark wrote:

Ricci’s approach to preaching the Gospel in China was based on the idea that in order to convert all of China the educated elite must first be convinced of the truths taught in Christianity, and this meant that his missionary method had to formulate an intellectually rigorous system of presenting and defending Catholic belief.

He also considered that in an intrinsically hierarchical society, the best way to convert China would be to first convert the emperor himself. As Jean-Pierre Charbonnier writes, “The Jesuits … dreamed of a new Constantine for China.” [3] One of Ricci’s approaches to Christian apologetics was to explain how Christianity was in fact already latent in Chinese culture, and even more, he set himself to accommodating Catholic liturgical and devotional life to extant Chinese rituals and sensibilities.

“Few people,” observes Clark, “have ever mastered, no less written on, such a wide array of topics: philosophy, astronomy, theology, friendship, cartography, catechetics, apologetics, mathematics, and so forth.”

Sandra Miesel, in May 2011, wrote a piece for CWR, “The Wise Man from the West,” about Ricci:

Not only was Ricci well-versed in the “natural philosophy” of his era, he deeply appreciated the complementary roles of faith and reason. Ricci’s college studies with Christoph Clavius, the Jesuit who devised the Gregorian calendar, had covered mathematics, astronomy, optics, geography, and the use of scientific instruments. Such knowledge was applied in the same spirit by his Jesuit successors in Peking who brought the telescope, constructed a globe, and corrected the Chinese calendar, among other accomplishments.

In 1603, Ricci published his key work, The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven (Tianzhu shiyi). This pre-evangelization dialogue invites readers to escape the prison of a merely natural existence to find lasting joy in God. (Well over a century later, this book came into the hands of a Korean and sparked the first Catholic evangelization of his country.)

Ricci became a minor celebrity at Peking. He was in constant demand at elite dinner parties and candidates taking the imperial examinations flocked to meet him. After a visiting Chinese Jew mistook Ricci for a fellow Jew, he was invited to become the rabbi of a synagogue in Kaifeng. The Wanli emperor may have considered Ricci an exotic pet. The Wise Man from the West simply wore out in his silken harness. He died of a fever on May 11, 1610. His tomb and those of other pioneer Jesuits still survive undamaged in Bejing.

Alas, Ricci’s accommodations with Confucian culture alarmed later missionaries who were hostile to the Jesuits. They claimed he promoted “idolatrous” Chinese rites, a complicated matter debated in Rome for years, until in 1704 Pope Clement XI condemned reverence for Confucius and one’s ancestors. He reconfirmed his decision in 1715. The formerly tolerant Kangxi emperor banned Christian missions in 1721. His successor exiled most of the Jesuits in Peking. Catholic evangelization in China was hampered until Pius XII relaxed the former policy in 1939 to permit civic and familial honors.

Nevertheless, posthumous honors have continued for Ricci. A Jesuit colleague who had worked in Japan praised him for doing “more with his death than with his life.” Peking Buddhists revered him as the bodhisattva (“saint”) Li Madou pusa. Ricci and Marco Polo are the only Westerners depicted in the Millennium Building in Beijing. On January 24, 2010, beatification proceedings reopened for Ricci in his home diocese of Macerata-Tolentino.

And now it appears that Ricci will soon be a “Blessed”. 

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About Carl E. Olson 1197 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.

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