Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
November 16, 2009
Jesuit missionary showed way to bring Spirit into a culture
Few Canadian Catholics have likely heard of Father Matteo Ricci, an early 17th century Jesuit who helped bring the faith to China. The fourth century of Ricci's death in Beijing is now being marked by an exhibit at the Vatican, a clear sign of the importance of the man's ministry.
Ricci was an innovator - a fact immediately obvious from the illustration of him in a Confucian scholars' robes that ran on Page 2 of last week's WCR.
Previous attempts to bring the Catholic faith to China had ended in abject failure and the missionaries sent packing. Those failed missionaries had been imbued with the European chauvinism of the age - the belief that converts not only had to imbibe Catholic teaching, but that they had to adopt supposedly superior European standards of dress, education and the arts. No wonder one Jesuit was taken out of the country in a cage.
Ricci spent years in Macao before entering China, learning Chinese ways and mastering a difficult language. He was one of the few to understand that the Catholic faith could adapt itself to different cultures without compromising its soul.
Ricci, for example, drew a map of the world that put China at the centre and Europe off to the side, a stark shift from the Europe-centred maps that are still typical. His was the only map the Chinese could accept since they "knew" that China was "the Middle Kingdom," the centre of the world.
In a message about Ricci, Pope Benedict wrote it was his great respect for Chinese traditions that "distinguished his mission to search for harmony between the noble and millenary Chinese civilization with the Christian novelty."
There are lessons for us in Ricci's success. In the Western world, the relationship between orthodox Christianity and secularism has become a cultural war. Such antagonism can only be harmful to the Church's mission. More and more will Christianity be widely viewed as a caricature of its real self and forced into a tiny corner.
Catholics always need to be mindful of the virtues of Western civilization - particularly its respect for freedom and its enormous technological advances - while remaining critical of the excesses of those virtues. We need also to display something the West does not have - the fruits of the Holy Spirit.
We need to open ourselves so the Spirit can display his fruits through us. The fruits - joy, peace, kindness, generosity, forgiveness and, above all, love, as well as other fruits - offer a striking alternative to the frenetic, self-centred way of our culture.
But do our lives display those fruits? Like Father Matteo Ricci, we may have to spend several years in our own spiritual Macao before the seed of the Spirit is displayed in such fruit. If we do, however, the spiritual harvest may well last for centuries.
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