News that the cause for sainthood of the Italian Jesuit missionary to China, Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) is back on track is interesting for a whole range of reasons, not least because Pope Francis is also a Jesuit.
But overriding this is the possibility that Ricci’s beatification and eventual canonisation just might contribute to easing the long-running tension between the Vatican and Beijing.
It comes at a time when Christianity is surging ahead in China and religious enthusiasm of any kind always spooks China’s ruling Communist Party. A median estimate is that there are roughly 77 million Christians in China, of whom 65 million are Protestants and 12 million are Catholics but there have been some who claim the true figure could be as high as 130million.
Ricci’s cause was originally opened in 1984 in his home diocese of Macerata in Italy but stalled almost immediately because some in the Catholic hierarchy questioned his accommodating attitude to Confucianism and the Chinese custom of venerating ancestors. The same criticisms were levelled at Ricci during his lifetime and dogged the Jesuits in China throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, a fascinating tale of missed – or thwarted – opportunity that we’ll come to shortly.
The cause lay dormant until it was reopened in 2010 to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Ricci’s death. The Bishop of Macerata, Claudio Giuliodori, recently concluded the initial phase of the process and handed over all the documentation to the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints. The next phase involves writing a spiritual autobiography, or positio, setting out the case that Ricci was an individual of “heroic sanctity”, and a miracle will also need to be certified before beatification can take place.
Matteo Ricci led one of the most extraordinary lives of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. He left his homeland at the age of 26 never to return and was one of the first Jesuits allowed to enter mainland China.Steeped in Chinese language and Confucian philosophy, he called himself Li Ma-tiu, grew a long beard, and dressed in the robes of a Buddhist monk until he was advised that he would have more success dressed as a Confucian scholar.
Ricci brought all the latest scientific ideas with him to China having been a student of the great Jesuit astronomer and pioneer of modern algebra, Christoph Clavius (1538-1612), who was the driving force behind the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1582 and one of the first to observe the moons of Jupiter and the phases of Venus. The Jesuit set up a scientific laboratory that attracted numerous mandarins and scholars who he instructed about acoustics and the construction of sundials. He translated Euclid using pictograms, wrote a treatise on friendship, a Christian catechism in the form of a learned conversation between a Chinese philosopher and a Catholic priest, and a manual on the techniques of memory training (Ricci’s prodigious feats of memory and use of pictures to preach the Gospel are celebrated in Jonathan D Spence’s wonderful book, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, Faber 1985).
A brilliant cartographer, he also produced the first map of China on which Europe, Africa and the Americas also appeared. Over the Chinese landmass, which appeared in the centre, he placed an inscription: “The Middle Kingdom is renowned for the greatness of its civilisation.” That respect for Chinese culture, coupled with his own European learning, was the secret of Ricci’s success. After years of patient waiting, in 1601 he eventually gained access to the imperial court in Beijing, where he was soon befriended by the Ming emperor Wanli (reigned 1572-1620) and entrusted with tutoring the emperor’s son.
By the time of Ricci’s death in 1610, there were approximately 3000 Christians in China, and that number rose steadily to 38,200 by 1636. Herein lies an intriguing counter-factual question: How would Chinese history – and therefore world history – have been different if the Jesuits had succeeded in converting China to Christianity from the emperor down?
That was their aim, and they came tantalisingly close to succeeding. The last prince of the Ming dynasty, overthrown by the Manchus and driven into exile in the south, was a convert to Christianity who adopted the baptismal name of Constantine. The overthrow of the Ming emperors in 1644 was a temporary setback for the Jesuits, but they soon strengthened their position under the Qing emperor Kangxi (reigned 1661-1722), who wrote to the pope in Rome asking to marry his niece. Although the marriage project never succeeded, more than 50 of the emperor’s sons and daughters were baptised.
Perhaps Ricci’s greatest legacy is that he was a pioneer of what is now called “inculturation”, the idea that in order for the Gospel to take root in any non-Christian culture it must be allowed to adapt to the language and customs of that culture. Ricci was full of admiration for Confucius and appears to have understood that Christianity would not succeed in China unless it was prepared to accommodate itself to the ancient ritual of venerating ancestors. He decided, pragmatically, that these were “civil rites” that had nothing to do with religion.
But the Jesuits in China were undermined by the jealousy of the two rival Catholic missionary orders, the Dominicans and the Franciscans. They refused to make any concessions to local custom and preached that the Chinese emperors were heathens destined to burn in hell. They denounced the Jesuits in Rome for failing to teach their Chinese converts about the crucifixion (the Jesuits replied they had never denied the crucifixion, but crucifixion in China was such a terrible ignominy that it was better to be extremely tactful), and for condoning the Chinese practice of venerating ancestors. In 1667 they succeeded in getting Pope Clement IX, an enemy of the Jesuits, to issue a decree banning Chinese Christians from participating in such rites. In 1715, Clement XI went further, imposing a formal oath against the cult of ancestors on all missionaries working in China. All of this did irreparable damage to the cause of Christianity in 18th century China: in 1721, the Kangxi emperor, who at the beginning of his long reign had written to a pope asking to marry his niece, banned Christian missionaries from China “to avoid further trouble.”
Matteo Ricci’s cause for sainthood is especially timely in the context of the tension between the Vatican and Beijing, precisely because he personifies pragmatism and accommodation with Chinese culture and because he enjoys such a positive reputation in China. Handled well, his beatification is an opportunity to build bridges.
But handled badly, things could all go horribly wrong. Part of the problem is that making saints is almost always a political act. Pope John Paul II often used saint making as a way of strengthening papal ties with the local churches beyond Europe and to enhance the prestige and ceremonial function of the papacy. But in a post-colonial context the recognition especially of missionary saints and martyrs is bound to provoke sensitivities. And in China there is likely to be a very low tolerance for any gesture that smacks of papal imperialism or using saints to rewrite disputed history.
Back in 2000, Pope John Paul II’s decision to canonise 120 Chinese martyrs of the Boxer Rebellion turned into a public relations disaster for the Vatican with the Chinese Government accusing Rome of interfering in China’s internal affairs and attempting to “distort the verdict of history on colonialism and imperialism.” Great offence had been caused by the Vatican’s decision to hold the canonisation ceremony on October 1, the national holiday of the Chinese Communist Party. In all likelihood the decision was intended as a tit-for-tat response to the consecration without Vatican approval of five new bishops for the state-sanctioned church a few months earlier. The Vatican feigned innocence, but John Paul II was much given to “Aesopian gestures” of this kind, whereby an innocent meaning is conveyed to outsiders but a concealed meaning is conveyed to insiders. On this occasion, however, the Party was onto him, and a year later there was a papal apology for the possible past errors and personal limitations of Catholic missionaries in China.
Meanwhile, the Jesuit postulator general (i.e. the Jesuit who oversees promotion of the Jesuit order’s numerous causes for sainthood), Fr Tony Witwer, has confirmed that shifting relations with the Beijing government will affect the timing of Matteo Ricci’s beatification. “It’s possible to wait, even if all things are clear for a beatification, something like five years to see if the political situation has changed and is more favourable to the cause,” he told the Catholic news Agency recently.
This week, during his Wednesday audience in Rome, Pope Francis made his first public reference to China, calling on Catholics worldwide to mark Friday May 24, the Feast of Our Lady Help of Christians, as an international day of prayer for the Chinese Church.
“I invite all the Catholics of the world to join in prayer with their brothers and sisters who are in China to implore from God the grace to announce with humility and joy Christ who died and is risen, to be faithful to his Church and to the Successor of Peter, and to live their daily lives in service to their country and to their fellow citizens in a way that is coherent with the faith they profess,” the pope said.
Pope Benedict XVI first decreed that 24 May should be kept as an annual day of prayer for the Chinese church in 2007.
At present there’s a lot to pray about. The relationship between China’s underground Catholic church and the state-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) is at a low ebb. The Shanghai bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin has been under house arrest since he renounced his membership of the CCPA.
Also this week, Asia’s independent Catholic news agency UCAN reported that the Chinese government had issued new regulations that significantly tighten its control over the election of Catholic bishops, a subject of tension for many years. http://www.ucanews.com/news/anger-at-beijings-grip-on-bishop-elections/68321 The new regulations place control over the process of electing bishops in the hands of the state-controlled Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China (BCCCC) and Beijing’s Religious Affairs Bureau. Previously, oversight had tended to be exercised more at the provincial level. The changes are a clear indication that the new leadership of President Xi Jinping intends to rigorously maintain the Government’s hard line towards the Catholic Church.
Stephen Crittenden is a Sydney based journalist specialising in religious affairs and former long time host of the Radio National’s Religion Report.