Matteo Ricci 1552 – 1610 利玛窦; 利瑪竇; 西泰 Xītài)

In 13 History on 2015/11/06 at 12:00 AM

In 1582, Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit barely thirty years old, entered China looking more like a Buddhist monk than a priest.  Like Francis Xavier and later  Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Matteo firmly believed that cultural adaptation was essential for missionaries and that missionaries must adapt to the culture surrounding them unless in some way that culture directly contradicted the Christian faith.

China which considered itself the most ancient civilization of the world believed itself to be the only “real” civilized country in the world.  The Chinese did not believe foreigners had anything of value to teach them and feared the destabilizing effects a new religion might introduce.  China’s government had, therefore, in the past rejected every attempt made to introduce Christianity to China.

Matteo Ricci was born at a unique time when the scientific and technological innovations of the the Renaissance days had reached full bloom.  Matteo had a bag of tricks with him that would fascinate the Chinese.  And that cornucopia of information, new ideas and gadgets included clocks,  prisms, composition of light, perspective, mathematics applied to physics, map-making and printed books.

With genius rapidity, Ricci mastered the Mandarin language of the cultured.  He spoke to them about Christ and skillfully used the wise sayings of the Chinese when those sayings agreed with Christian doctrine.  His success was impressive: “Without going out of the house, we preach to the Gentiles, some of whom are converted.”

Ricci and his Chinese fellow-workers devised a system to write Chinese phonetically.  He then translated scores of western scientific works into Chinese, works that were printed along with a primer on Christian doctrine.

Unbelievably, Ricci was admitted into the Emperor’s court in the Forbidden City.  The Emperor was absolutely fascinated by Ricci and clocks.  Ricci had learned much from his mentor, the famous Jesuit Christopher Clavius, a mathematical genius (the greatest mathematician of his time), the maker of the Gregorian Calendar and a supporter of Galileo.

Possessing a unique sense of history, the Chinese people later often asked: “Why did we not hear of Christianity earlier?  Why is it all new and strange to us?  Had God forgotten us for all the centuries of our ancestors?”  The answer came later, in 1623, when a monument was discovered and authenticated by many scholars.  It was a long inscribed tablet in Chinese relating a Syrian mission to China which started about 600 AD in the days of the T’ang dynasty.  Sadly,  persecutions suppressed this and later efforts.

By the time Ricci died in 1610, he had brought more than four hundred converts to Christianity.  Within years of his death, that number grew to one hundred and fifty thousand.  Matteo Ricci was buried inside the Forbidden City and is the only westerner ever to have that honor.  On his grave marker is inscribed the list of high ranking Chinese who had become Christians. This grave preserved from desecration during the rampage of Mao’s Red Terror.

Robert Bellarmine had also been an advocate of Galileo and Ricci and had supported the permission granting to Chinese priests the permission to celebrate the Mass in Chinese and cover their heads according to the Chinese custom.  With Papal approval, the monumentally difficult task of translating the Bible into Chinese began.  However, the vice-president of the Board of Rites in Nanking destroyed those plans by launching a virulent persecution against Christians.

Matteo Ricci had laid a foundation for the Faith among the Chinese people. The church Ricci planted has stood ever since.  The Catholic Church in China, while mainly underground, is vital and constantly watered with the blood of martyrs, which as Origen said is “seed.”


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