Could Matteo Ricci Have Done It Today?

Cambridge, MA. As you know from my last blog, I am way behind on current events (insofar as I ever catch up), due to a very busy June and most recently my retreat near Dublin. Much that I would have written can be allowed to pass without observable loss. However, I did want to return to the item noted in the press back in May, “Pope praises Father Matteo Ricci, 16th-century missionary to China,” on the 400th anniversary of his death. See also the America's fine May 4th cover story, by Jeremy Clarke, SJ, a China expert.

The Pope spoke to visitors from Fr. Ricci’s hometown of Macerata in Italy. His brief remarks, which can be found at the Vatican website, serve well to honor the occasion but — since I always expect greater insights from this Pope in particular (whether he actually composed his comments or not!) — there is more we can learn from what we read. Here I will just highlight a few points, by way of gentle arguments, with respect to the possibility of ventures such as Ricci's in today's Church; don’t trust this as a summary of the Pope's speech, be sure to read his comments for yourself at the Vatican website.


First, “Fr Ricci is 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; he is an example of balance between doctrinal clarity and prudent pastoral action.” This is easy to say in retrospect, but in that day and age, Fr Ricci and other early Jesuits in China had to find their way experimentally, taking risks that others disapproved of, often going too far, in the judgments of their more cautious Catholic contemporaries, in making the Gospel at home in China. Clarity and prudence were easier to see with hindsight!

Second, Fr Ricci’s perspective “consisted of a humanism that viewed the person as part of his context, cultivated his moral and spiritual values, retaining everything positive that is found in the Chinese tradition and offering to enrich it with the contribution of Western culture and, above all, with the wisdom and truth of Christ.” This too is a wonderful insight, and very true, but it is, I would guess — since I am not a China-expert — hard to prove in practice. How for instance does the foreigner, living for but a few years in China, decide what is “positive” in Chinese culture? Surely there must have been positive elements — e.g., in Chinese Buddhism, or in the more arcane parts of the Tao, or in popular religion — that Fr. Ricci missed. So too, it is tricky to distinguish where “the contribution of Western culture” ends and “the wisdom and truth of Christ” takes over. Even today, Asian theologians struggle to decide which parts of the heritage of the West can be left behind as not essential to the Gospel.

Third, the Pope nicely quotes Fr. Ricci, "For more than 20 years, every morning and every evening I have prayed with tears to Heaven. I know that the Lord of Heaven takes pity on living creatures and pardons them... The truth about the Lord of Heaven is already in human hearts. But human beings do not immediately understand it and are not inclined to reflect on such a matter,” and the Pope adds that in this way Ricci was making the Gospel known, that is to say, making God known. My guess again is that things are a bit more complicated, since the reading of the human heart is not an easy thing to do, particularly far from one’s native culture, and since the move from the “Lord of heaven” — a term with rich resonances in Chinese culture — to Jesus Christ and the Gospel really requires a wisdom that discovers or makes connections in a way that is not heavy-handed or pompous, a facile identification of “their” best values with “our” best values. I mention this neither to criticize Fr Ricci nor to disagree with the Pope, but to point out how breath-taking a move it was, and is, to make such connections in a non-colonizing or patronizing way. Do we give our theologians room for these adventures today, when Rome is not a year’s sea journey away, but a quick phone call or email?

Four, the Pope points out that in Fr Ricci’s ministry “the encounter motivated by faith also became an intercultural dialogue.” Here I am a little puzzled. Wouldn’t the intercultural dialogue, with all the patience that requires, come first and then become, open the way to, a subsequent encounter in faith? This is not a major issue, of course, but has to do with intentions and cultural skills: how do we begin to make Christ known when we are strangers in a strange land?

Fifth and finally, the Pope rightly recollects Fr Ricci’s Chinese companions, particularly Xu Guangqi, “a native of Shanghai, a literary man and a scientist, mathematician, astronomer and agricultural expert who reached the highest ranks in the imperial bureaucracy, an integral man of great faith and Christian life, who was dedicated to serving his country and occupied an important place in the history of Chinese culture,” and Li Zhizao, who “helped Fr Ricci in completing the last and most developed editions of the world map that were to give the Chinese a new image of the world.” This is a wonderful corrective to missionary narratives that give all the credit to the Western missionary, and see natives as passive recipients of our wisdom. I would just add that Fr Ricci surely learned a great deal from Chinese intellectuals who did not become Christian, who resisted the logic of Fr Ricci’s cultural and religious arguments, and who, in their resistance, taught him something of the difference of China, how he could never quite understand it or make it fit perfectly with his expectations. Every missionary should have room to thank those who take him or her seriously — but still do not convert!

Think about it. The real point, I am suggesting, is that the very fact that we honor Fr Ricci 400 years after his death — just as in 2005 we honored Fr Roberto de Nobili 400 years after his arrival in India — is no safe thing. They were pioneers who took risks, put together things that never had been put together before, and hoped and prayed that all the religious and cultural pieces would hold together, so as to convince both the people they visited, and Church officials back in Europe. We honor Fr Ricci and Fr de Nobili most honestly, I think, by creating spaces for similar experiments today, letting novel efforts bear fruit, or not, over a longer rather than shorter period of time — being patient enough to wait, assessing their work only after a good period of time has passed.

Can we honor Fr Ricci, then, by celebrating today the fact that right now all kinds of new and uncharted interreligious encounters are coming to birth, such as require us to figure out how to connect the Gospel to our culture/s? (This needn't be taken merely as a rhetorical question, implying a negative answer. Perhaps we do leave open this space for the interreligious imagination. But in that happy circumstance, the point is to make sure that we keep the space open, lest we kill our prophets and then later on honor their graves.)

Francis X. Clooney


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we vnornm
8 years 6 months ago
Today we don't have to travel thousands of miles to encounter another culture, there are so many opportunities for engagement right in our home towns, even the small ones.
Understanding the culture of our young people, from avatars to game playing (strange to most of us) might present another opportunity.
Keeping a space in our minds open...we can engage cultures everywhere through reading. Part of my summer reading is CHINA: A History, by John Keay.
we vnornm
8 years 6 months ago
Engaging individual people we meet, truly understanding a culture, reading about cultures...for me these don't mean a whole-hearted embrace. (I suspect that you are right that for many others they do.) 
This topic of cultural diversity can also in fact be used as a tactic to dilute our own culture or country and even to point this out risks condemnation.
But in this case, I see strong grounding in the faith and respect.
Much as I love Merton, I think he got caught up in this way too much.
Would be interesting to have a debate somewhere on a topic like "Is cultural diversity helpful to the Church? When and how? When not" What do you think would be some of the pros and cons that would come out in a debate like this?  How many colleges would sponsor such a symposium? If the number were few (and it might be), all the points you made would take on even a greater meaning and caution. bill
PJ Johnston
8 years 6 months ago
Thank you for the meditation - I've been wondering similar things from the Catholic ashrama I'm visiting at present, where the atmosphere is generally pretty open but if I ask too many (or too precisely-detailed) "Catholic questions," the answers I receive become somewhat more coded and cautious, though still generally understandable. Apparently Western Catholic visitors with notebooks and cell phones and/or internet connections sometimes result in complaints to the hierarchy.   I asked some questions about the political implications of my own comparative theology research, and was basically told to emulate the cautious style of figures in the center who have never gotten into trouble (including Francis Clooney) - but this is more difficult for people who deal with ritual than with texts.  But the visit is illuminating both for knowledge of what can be done openly, and what requires more circumspection.
PJ Johnston
8 years 6 months ago!
I forgot to add this amateur video of an inculturated Indian mass.


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