Matteo Ricci, the brilliant, learned and holy 17th -century Jesuit priest, widely regarded as the leader of modern missionary activity in China, was the subject of a special sermon by Pope Benedict XVI recently (29 May). The Papal address was occasioned by a pilgrimage to Rome for the 400th anniversary of Father Ricci’s death.
This was a priest who was a giant in many ways. In our seminary studies at St. Bernard’s, Rochester, he was the center of almost two lengthy lectures by the late Father Robert McNamara, during his required, superb Church history lectures, which continued for six years. I have never forgotten those lectures, in which Father Ricci’s story unfolded before us, largely because, I think, we had never heard of him before. Yet, when I was pursuing graduate work in a Methodist Theological School during the 1970s, Father Ricci’s story came up in class. No informed Catholic should be uninformed about him.
Father Ricci was born in Macerata in 1552, long before what we know as Italy today had melded into a national unit. His tomb is, almost unbelievably, in Peking – proof of the esteem in which he, a foreigner on Chinese soil, is still held by Chinese authorities. Moreover, he is only one of two foreign heroes recorded in Peking’s "Millennium Museum." (The other, obviously, is Marco Polo, also of Italian, or Venetian, origin.)
Father Ricci is especially significant because, as Pope Benedict explains, he represents in a missionary "a unique case of a felicitous synthesis between the proclamation of the Gospel and the Dialogue with the culture of the people to whom he brought it." Moreover, he constitutes "an example of balance between doctrinal clarity and prudent pastoral action."
Inculturation was his genius, therefore. Father Ricci was a scientist and a philosopher as well as a theologian. He was able to enter China by virtue of his scientific knowledge; cartography, for example, and mathematics, and astronomy. But his ultimate motivation was primarily to bring to China the Gospel and its humanism, with all its moral and spiritual values, without prejudice to all that is positive in the Chinese tradition – while enriching this tradition with the wisdom of Christ. No one has accomplished this better in China, before or since.
Consider the circumstances of his time. In 1580, the year of Ricci’s priestly ordination, the mysterious Middle Kingdom had long been sealed off from the Western world. Following intensive language and cultural studies, Ricci settled at Chaoking; it was August 1582. In 1585, he and a colleague established a church and residence – the first such buildings since medieval Franciscans launched their mission to Cathay.
Almost overnight, Father Ricci’s scientific and mathematical talents became known. He astonished the Chinese with his Venetian prisms, sundials, clocks, star-charts and maps. And he displayed great European books of wisdom and culture. Soon, Ricci was entering the world of China’s literati and academicians. Then, after much preparation, he trekked to Imperial Peking, whose walls he reached in September 1598. Rebuffed for an interval, he retreated, returning in two years. Then, bearing an Imperial invitation (a summons, really), he entered the Forbidden City on 24 Jan. 1601, and to the amazement of many, was allowed residence therein.
Father Ricci’s tenure in the Chinese capital was hardly without tensions. There were those at hand whose ambitions often thwarted his vision for a China steeped in the Gospel, albeit clearly reflective of compatible Chinese traditions. And there were those in the Church at large who, failing to comprehend his efforts (or misreading them), regularly inserted obstacles in his path. Yet, when this "Master of the Great West" died, his grave, just outside the Imperial City, was the gift of the Emperor. Father Ricci today ranks as the most venerated foreigner in Chinese history.
Indeed, the name of Father Ricci remains a single, telling contradiction to those who would ridicule or reject inculturation; his name is itself an argument which no intelligent person can dismiss; simply cite it, and any allegation that Christian missionaries necessarily destroy native cultures shatters like broken glass. On occasion, I personally have had cause to cite it while listening to lectures by those who decry missionary endeavors; Father Ricci remains an irrefutable argument as to how the missions can gloriously continue.
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.