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Posted May 24, 2011

Jesuit's approach to Chinese
still offers lessons five centuries later

"A Jesuit in the Forbidden City" by R. Po-Chia Hsia. Oxford University Press (New York, 2010). 359 pp., $57.50.
Reviewed by Brother Jeffrey Gros, FSC Catholic News Service

The 16th century is often remembered for the great events of the Catholic and Protestant Reformations; even more theologically interesting and world-transforming, however, were the great missionary developments in the New World and Asia. Among the great milestones in this Christian pilgrimage was the opening of China to the Gospel and the creative and, yes, reforming initiatives of the Jesuit missionaries there. Communities created in this period, at the turn to the 17th century, continue to this day, as do the debates on appropriate inculturation of the Gospel and the interaction with the world's great religions.

In fact, Father Matteo Ricci, the subject of R. Po-Chia Hsia's theological biography titled "A Jesuit in the Forbidden City" lends his name to four institutes on both sides of the Pacific and is seen as a challenge and model to those, Jesuits among them, who focus their mission on re-establishing unity among Catholics in China and the universal church.

Father Ricci's legacy is not only a spur to Christian mission, theology, the interaction of cultures and of religion and science in the 21st century. His memory has also been the ideological ground for Italian Fascist pretentions to imperial expansion and Marxist Chinese nationalisms in the 20th century.

Unlike the mission heritage of the evangelization in the Western Hemisphere in the same period, there exist many records of the literature, cultures and religions outside of Christianity that give us a three-dimensional account of the life, thought and cultural impact of the first Europeans to settle in China as missionaries.

Father Ricci's strategy was to identify with the local cultures and, where possible, elements of religion compatible with the Gospel, and to approach conversion through dialogue, friendship, intellectual respect and persuasion. He also had the advantage of preceding colonization and conquest.

The volume charts the course of his life and ministry from childhood in Italy, formation in Rome, and gradual penetration of the mainland, beyond the coastal colonies of the period, ending his life in the imperial capital, Beijing, as guest of the Ming imperial establishment. His strategy was to find language in the Chinese vocabulary for Christian concepts, which in the course of his career and after had to be continually modified as the Jesuit mission became clearer about Chinese cosmology, theology and philosophy and the subtleties of concepts and meaning in their languages.

He was a well-trained scientist, schooled by the Jesuits who moved the West from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. He found a sophisticated astronomical, mathematical and cosmological science in China, from which he was able to learn, but also which he was able to enhance and correct from Western learning. Even though both systems were pre-Copernican, his erudition and scientific knowledge was a window and attraction for the Gospel to many Mandarin Chinese elites. He learned the class and bureaucratic structure of Chinese society as best he could, and tried to provide a credibility to Western scholarship and wisdom that made the Gospel attractive to the sophisticated Chinese.

The original strategy was to come as Western monks, in the style of Buddhists. However, after careful study of the religions of China -- Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism -- Father Ricci became a critic of Buddhist theology, changed his habit and style to that of a Confucian scholar and provided an exposition of Christianity in dialogue with the Confucian classics. His prodigious publishing record in science, religion and philosophy made the mission not only an exotic curiosity for Chinese elites, including the emperor; but also a respected intellectual center even for those who did not opt for his Christian theology.

The Jesuits maintained a credible Christian witness and modest stream of conversions until, ironically, inter-Christian debates and the final suppression of the Jesuits by the pope undermined the mission and elicited persecution. The great land of China today faces yet a new set of challenges as a culture, and the debates among Christians continue as to how best to promote this new evangelization. Certainly the spiritual tenacity and intellectual creativity of Father Ricci remains a model, as his ideas provide a stimulus for an intelligent approach to the Christian mission in this vast world.

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Brother Gros, a member of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, is resident scholar in Catholic studies at Lewis University in Romeoville, Ill.