My sister Dorothy just returned with members of her family from a pilgrimage to China that traced the mission path of Father Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit priest credited for successfully bringing Christianity to China and making a profound influence on Chinese culture and knowledge. Dorothy is the mother of STAR Health and Family Section columnist Jose E. Claro, a teacher in the Jesuit outreach school ERDA.
In past centuries, no other foreigner from the West was so well known in China than Father Ricci. He was the first Westerner to be invited to the Forbidden City and the first foreigner to be granted the honor of being buried in Beijing. To this day, he continues to be held by the Chinese in high esteem. Statues and paintings of him can be found in Shanghai’s Xujiahui District, the China Millennium Monument and the courtyard of the South Cathedral in Beijing, among others.
In the 16th century, China had still kept itself closed to the Western World. The Chinese regarded Westerners as barbaric and saw no benefit in trading with them. Saint Francis Xavier was the first Jesuit who attempted to evangelize China but he died of an illness on the island of Shangchuan while waiting in vain for a boat that would take him to the Chinese mainland. It was Father Matteo Ricci’s arrival in 1582 that led to the establishment of the first Catholic mission in China and laid the groundwork for the growth of the Catholic Church there.
In Father Ricci’s desire to become one with the Chinese people, he mastered the difficult Chinese language and script. He dressed like a Chinese scholar, and respected Chinese culture, traditions and Confucian practices.
In 1584, Ricci drew the first map of the world in Chinese, illustrating China in comparison to the rest of the world. About this time, he and another Jesuit priest also compiled the first ever European-Chinese dictionary using the Latin alphabet for transcribing Chinese words. Ricci’s exceptional knowledge of the sciences and geography won the great respect of Chinese officials and scholars.
In 1600, Xu Guangji, a young scholar from Shanghai, sought out Matteo Ricci who was already making a deep impression among the Chinese. Their friendship turned into a fruitful collaboration. Ricci and Xu Guangji translated the six books of Euclid’s Elements into Chinese to introduce geometry and western logic to China, a daunting task that momentarily left Ricci wondering whether it would stunt his mission.
In the end, Ricci decided to serve the Chinese people by helping them to understand Western science. Xu Guangji was baptized as Paul Xu and eventually rose to a high office that had close access to the Emperor’s Court — thus paving the way for the establishment of the Catholic Church in China.
Despite the relative success of his missionary work, Father Ricci felt the need to plant firmly the Christian mission in China by establishing himself in the imperial capital of Peking — now known as Beijing. After presenting Emperor Wanli of the Ming Dynasty with interesting gifts from Europe like clocks and scientific instruments, Father Ricci was invited in 1601 to enter the Imperial court, becoming the first foreigner from the West to enter the Forbidden City. He built his home and a parish on the site that is now known as the South Cathedral of Beijing. He founded numerous Jesuit mission centers in China and by 1608 — some two thousand Christians had been baptized.
The inspiring story of this Italian missionary cum scientist, whose fourth death centenary is being celebrated this year, comes aptly at a time when intolerance abounds and we seem to have forgotten that ours is a multi-cultural, multi-religious world and society. Formerly maligned for his unconventional ways, Father Matteo Ricci transcended the barriers of culture and language and won hearts and minds before winning souls for Christ.
Pope Benedict XVI described Father Ricci as having “dedicated long years of his life to weaving a profound dialogue between West and East, at the same time working incisively to root the Gospel in the culture of the great people of China. It was, in fact, this approach that characterized his mission, which aimed to seek possible harmony between the noble and millennial Chinese civilization and the novelty of Christianity, which is for all societies a ferment of liberation and of true renewal from within, because the Gospel, universal message of salvation, is destined for all men and women whatever the cultural and religious context to which they belong.”
The Pope continued, “What made his apostolate original and, we could say, prophetic, was the profound sympathy he nourished for the Chinese, for their cultures and religious traditions.” Ricci was likewise “a model of dialogue and respect for the beliefs of others and made friendship the style of his apostolate during his 28 years in China.” Ironically, these words of Pope Benedict XVI were not shared by Church leaders of previous centuries when Father Matteo Ricci should have been considered for sainthood.
The cause of the beatification and canonization of Father Matteo Ricci has been reopened this year. For Father Ricci to be beatified, the Church typically requires proof that a miracle has taken place by his intercession.
These miracles are usually miraculous cures where doctors cannot find any natural explanation.
If you know of anyone needing a miracle, you may want to seek the intercession of Father Ricci through this prayer:
“Eternal Father, You sent Your only begotten Son into this world to redeem humankind, kindly hear our humble prayer.
Fr. Matteo Ricci, outstanding preacher of the Gospel, by Your providential plan, was one of the first to harvest the field made sacred by Saint Francis Xavier. As soon as he became a missionary in China, he spread far and wide the teaching of Christ and wisely guided countless souls along the road to salvation and sanctity.
May it please You, therefore, to glorify him on earth as he is glorified in heaven and to add his name to the list of the Blesseds and Saints. His elevation to the honors of the altar would give greater glory to You and to the Church and greater edification for the Chinese Christians who so courageously live their faith and their charity.”
(Note: Whoever learns of favors received through the intercession of Fr. Matteo Ricci is asked to inform the Society of Jesus, Chinese Province Largo de Sto. Agostino 4, Macau, P.R.C. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The failure to canonize Fr. Matteo Ricci as a Saint in the centuries following his death is another example in the long history of the Roman Catholic Church when Church leaders either bowed to political pressure or veered towards religious extremism. Pope John Paul II himself acknowledged that “history reminds us of the unfortunate fact that the work of members of the Church in China was not always without error, the bitter fruit of their personal limitations and of the limits of their action.... often conditioned by difficult situations connected with complex historical events and conflicting political interests.”
Recalling what Father Matteo Ricci wrote in Beijing, Pope John Paul II said: “so too today the Catholic Church seeks no privilege from China and its leaders, but solely the resumption of dialogue, in order to build a relationship based upon mutual respect and deeper understanding. Let it be known to China: the Catholic Church has a keen desire to offer, once more, her humble and selfless dialogue in order to build a relationship based upon service for the good of the Chinese Catholics and of all the people of the country.”
It is exactly this unifying stance — the type of a Saint that Father Ricci is — that the Catholic Church needs very badly today.
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