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A primer on the life and work of Venerable Matteo Ricci, S.J.

Pope Francis has declared Ricci (1552-1610) venerable, opening the way for the Jesuit missionary’s beatification.

An illustration depicts Jesuit Father Matteo Ricci in traditional Chinese clothing. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec); right: Part of a copy of the 1602 map 'Kunyu Wanguo Quantu' by Matteo Ricci, created at the request of the Wanli Emperor. (Image: Wikipedia)

From Gianni Criveller, at AsiaNews yesterday:

Pope Francis declared Fr Matteo Ricci venerable, making an important gift to the Church in China and all those hoping for such a result; he did it this morning, 17 December, his birthday. This means that the Church now recognises Fr Ricci’s “heroic virtues”, a key stage on the path of the Jesuit missionary’s beatification.

In an audience with Cardinal Marcello Semeraro, prefect of the dicastery for the Causes of Saints, Francis authorised the proclamation of 10 new Blessed and as well 14 new Venerables, including Father Ricci.

Ricci’s life is fascinating, often inspiriting, occasionally controversial, and a bit mysterious. Below is a May 27, 2009 essay (slightly edited for length) by Dr. Anthony E. Clark, which was first posted at Ignatius Insight, that provides essential background and context for Ricci’s life and work.

“Weaving a Profound Dialogue between West and East”: On Matteo Ricci, S.J. | Anthony E. Clark

The Jesuit missionary Fr. Matteo Ricci, S.J. (Li Madou, 1552-1610).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.

The Missionary

Matteo Ricci began his missionary work in 1582 at Macau, a Portuguese trading colony in southern China, where he began his studies in Mandarin Chinese. Unlike the missionary methods of other Orders such as the Dominicans and Franciscans, Ricci endeavored to introduce Christianity to China delicately, choosing to graft the faith more organically onto China’s existing culture rather than Christianizing it by first Westernizing the Middle Kingdom’s ancient traditions.

Ricci was one of the first Christian missionaries to master the official guanhua dialect of Chinese, the language spoken by the literati elite, the Confucian magistrates who held the administrative reins of the empire. While other missionaries struggled with the basics of southern China’s Cantonese dialect, Ricci was the first to navigate through the entire empire without a translator; he was a linguistic genius. Unlike the missionaries from other Orders, Matteo Ricci understood that learning China’s native language was the best, if not only way, to access China’s people and culture.

Having mastered the Middle Kingdom’s difficult spoken and written language, and memorized the Confucian classics (a lifetime commitment for other mortals), Ricci apprehended China’s cultural mores better than his contemporaries did. He knew that there were cultural aversions to certain images—such as those depicting Christ’s Passion—and he understood that the only way to introduce Christ to China effectively would be to withhold some aspects of Christianity until native Chinese were better prepared. In a 1596 letter to the Jesuit Superior, Ricci wrote, “We only venture to move forward very slowly . . . it is true that up till now we have not explained the mysteries of our holy faith, but we are nonetheless making progress by laying the principal foundations.” [1]

In his journals, Ricci often wrote of his desire to bring the truths of Christianity to China; in fact, his Christian mission figured foremost in his writings. Fr. Ricci wished to highlight Western knowledge and Western ways of learning; this, he felt, would eventually bring the Chinese to the religion of the West, and thus to Christ. While in Nanchang, he held public debates with Chinese scholars on science and theology, and the local Confucian officials marveled at Ricci’s precocity. During these disputations, he memorized and recalled a long series of Chinese characters after merely glancing at them. In a letter to Rome, Fr. Ricci wrote:

… in order to increase their wonder, [I] began to recite [the characters] all by memory backwards in the same manner, beginning with the very last until reaching the first. By which they all became utterly astounded and as if beside themselves. [2]

To bring Christ to China, Ricci had first brought Western learning and techniques for memorization, and in order to make the message of the Gospel more accessible to the Middle Kingdom he had made himself more accessible to China by becoming more Chinese himself.

Not only did Fr. Ricci set in place the Jesuit tradition of mastering the Chinese language and hallowed Confucian classics, but he also initiated the practice of piquing Chinese interest in Christianity by first intriguing them with Western curiosities. At his first mission in Zhaoqing, he enticed local elites in 1584 with his mappus mundi, the first Chinese-language, European-style map of the entire world. It was the first time that the Chinese had seen a map drawn to scale, more or less, illustrating China in comparison to the rest of the globe. Not only did Ricci’s map interest Chinese locals, but it also challenged previous assumptions that China occupied most of the world’s land mass.

While some accuse Ricci of focusing too exclusively on wooing the Chinese with Western curiosities such as maps, clocks, and clavichords, he did bring many Chinese into the Church. Three Chinese converts during Ricci’s mission are known today as “the three great pillars of Chinese Catholicism,” the first of whom is widely known in both Catholic and Protestant circles as the most influential and powerful Chinese Christian to have lived, Paul Xu Guangqi (1562-1633). Paul Xu, named after St. Paul the Evangelist, held China’s highest degree, the jinshi, and was thus a statesman in constant contact with the emperor’s Court in Beijing. Xu’s conversion was largely facilitated by Matteo Ricci’s Chinese catechism, the Tianzhu shiyi (The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven), in which a Chinese scholar (zhongshi) is pitted against a Western one (xishi), and using Aristotelian logic the Chinese interlocutor is convinced of the West’s intellectual acumen and the truth of the “Lord of Heaven.”

The other two “pillars” were Li Zhizao (1565-1630), also a jinshi, and Yang Tingyun (1562-1627). Chinese Catholics generally hold that Ricci and the “three pillars” are the bedrock of China’s Church, and the method Ricci used to promote the faith is known in China as the “Ricci method.” In many ways, we can say that Matteo Ricci was one of the Church’s finest apologists; several of his written works were intended to teach and defend the faith in a culture often unfriendly to Christianity.

The Apologist

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.

In effect, the Ricci method is best described in the words of the Catholic historian and founder of the field of missiology, Josef Schmidlin, who wrote that, according to Ricci, a missionary must:

… fight and eliminate all those elements in the concepts and customs of the people which originate from the paganism proper and are in direct opposition to Christianity, but with as much moderation and wise timing as possible under the consideration of the permissible usage of the people in the greatest extent. [4]

Matteo Ricci hoped to not only demonstrate that Christianity was logically convincing, but that it was inherent in the traditional works of ancient China. He was, perhaps, the principal founder of the Jesuit school in China known as the Figurists, and his Figurist assertions precipitated a storm of controversy, not only among the intellectuals of China but also the theologians in Rome.

The Controversy

Some have argued that Matteo Ricci’s eagerness to bring China to the fullness of the Catholic faith led him to several problematic assumptions. Ricci proposed that ancient Chinese religion held evidence of God, and he came to three conclusions about China’s relationship with the Christian God that formed the basis of the Jesuit Figurists.

His first assertion was related to historical chronology; he suggested that China’s antediluvian history was shared with China’s history, that Eastern and Western history was the same before the Great Flood. Second, the Figurists believed that Noah’s son, Shem, moved to China, bringing with him the knowledge of Adam when he was originally sinless. And third, Ricci’s method believed that the “sages” (shengren) mentioned in China’s ancient classics actually prefigured and alluded to Christ, the Messiah.

In reality, none of these assertions held to scholarly historical investigation; they were little more than hopeful intellectual propositions that highlight Ricci’s concern for China’s spiritual welfare more than his historical understanding of China’s past and its Confucian tenets. What eventually happened was that local Chinese literati were enraged a foreigner took such exegetical liberties with the revered history and beliefs of their own traditions. Ricci’s accomodationist method led many Confucians to view the Jesuits as deceitful and misinformed.

Sadly, while Ricci’s wish to integrate Confucianism into Christianity instead of rejecting China’s indigenous culture is admirable, these contentions produced more problems than good results. But in the end, Matteo Ricci is little remembered for his theological and historical creativity; he is more often remembered today for his contributions to, and influence on, Chinese society, a legacy few foreigners can claim.

The Legacy

Jean Lacouture, in his book about the great men of the Jesuit Order, wrote:

Matteo Ricci was the perfect man of culture, a polymath versed in all things, mathematics and literature, philosophy and poetry, mechanics and astronomy. Not for nothing was he the pupil of Christophonus Clavius, Roberto Bellarmino, and Luis de Molina. But he denied that he was a theologian, although others say he was. And . . . in his hands the exact sciences as well as morals and logic would be turned into the weapons of apologetics. [5]

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

At the end of his life, Ricci had earned the respect of more than his fellow Jesuits; he had gained the admiration of the Chinese people—the common people, educated officials, Court eunuchs, and the emperor himself. His life is not without controversies, especially regarding some of his historical assumptions. And while he was known as a profoundly holy and faithful priest of God, he nonetheless destroyed his spiritual diary while on his deathbed. In China, Matteo Ricci is often called the “wise man from the West,” and in the Western world he is heralded as the father of China missions and accomodationist missiology.

In a 2009 letter marking the 400th anniversary of the death of Ricci, Benedict XVI summarized the Jesuit and his influence in this way:

… Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit endowed with profound faith and extraordinary cultural and intellectual gifts, spent long years of his life building a fruitful dialogue between West and East, while at the same time effectively implanting the Gospel in the culture of the great People of China. Today, too his example continues to be a positive model in the encounter between the European and Chinese civilization.


[1] Quoted by Joseph Shih, S.J, in his introduction to Matteo Ricci and Nicolas Trigault, Histoire de l’expŽdition chrŽtienne au royaume de la Chine, 1582-1610 (Paris: DesclŽe de Brouwer, 1978), 38. Also see Charbonnier, Christians in China, 153.

[2] Jonathan D. Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (New York: Penguin Group, 1983), 139.

[3] Jean-Pierre Charbonnier, Christians in China: A.D. 600 to 2000, trans. M. N. L. Couve de Murville (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007), 194.

[4] Quoted in David Chung and nad Kang-nam Oh, Syncretism: The Religious Context of Christian Beginnings in Korea (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2001), 58.

[5] Jean Lacouture, Jesuits: A Multibiography, trans. Jeremy Leggatt (New York: Basic Books, 1997), 189.

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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.
About Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. 54 Articles
Anthony E. Clark is an associate professor of Chinese history at Whitworth University and the author of China’s Saints: Catholic Martyrdom During the Qing, 1644-1911. He is also the host of the EWTN television series The Saints of China: Martyrs of the Middle Kingdom.


  1. “Ricci’s accomodationist method led many Confucians to view the Jesuits as deceitful and misinformed.”
    Indeed, in many ways we can see Ricci as a worthy forerunner of Bergoglio.

  2. Concluding this article, from Pope Benedict, we read: “Today, too his [the Jesuit Ricci’s] example continues to be a positive model in the encounter between the European and Chinese civilization.” The riddle today, is what constitutes “Chinese civilization”?…

    Three points:

    FIRST, since the 16th century, Confucian civilization has been displaced by Western intrusions—the 19th-century Opium Wars (where else to market crops raised in British India!), technology and scientific materialism, industrialization displacing an agrarian society, and importation of the worst of Western heresies to replace mandarins with sociological-scientific [!] Marxist commissars. A “paradigm shift,” if you will.

    When we hear that patience is needed in dealing with Chinese culture (a rationale for the Vatican “provisional agreement”), we can at least wonder which China the Vatican has in mind.

    SECOND, hard for a lay observer to sort all this stuff out. In a deteriorating/ collectivizing world, face-to-face friendship seems one place to start as in “fraternity,” but meaning what? In the heretical West we are signaled that even the deepest form of human friendship should be upended! About marriage and sexual morality, again this from the Jesuit relator of the upcoming Synod on Synodality: “I believe that the sociological-scientific [!] foundation of this teaching is no longer true [….] I think it’s time we make a fundamental revision of the doctrine”

    THIRD, a Jesuit upstaging the recent and non-Jesuit Bishop Sorondo? Sorondo, a recent Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences who, in 2018, also opined from on high, that “right now, those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese”? So, Communism at the societal scale followed now by seduction at the personal scale, from men “consecrated to God.” We dare not “blaspheme” with personalized expressions of scorn, butt we ask: what accounts for such stupidity in words and actions?

    Natural law and Christianity, what’s that? Matteo Ricci rolls over in his venerated tomb in Zhalan Cemetery, in the heart of Beijing on the Haidan district side, in the “backyard” of a Communist Party school.

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