May 11th this year will be the 400th anniversary of the death of Matteo Ricci, the great Jesuit missionary to China. “Li Madou” (his Chinese name) died in Beijing and was buried on Chinese soil, an honour not normally given to foreigners, but granted by the emperor as a tribute to his wisdom and love for the Chinese.
Ricci was a pioneer in the theology of ‘inculturation’: immersing himself in Chinese life, with a profound love and respect for the culture, in the hope of creating a genuine dialogue - so allowing the unchanging Gospel message to flower in a new soil and in a new way. He is also an example of how scientific genius and Christian faith can go hand in hand.
Here is a summary of his life that came out on Zenit yesterday, in connection with an international congress on “Science, Reason, Faith: The Genius of Father Matteo Ricci,” held in Macerata.
Born in Macerata on October 6, 1552, the future “Apostle of China” entered the Society of Jesus in Rome at age 18, where he soon heard the call to a missionary vocation.
In 1557, before he was ordained a priest, he requested to be posted to the missions in the Far East. Thus he left for Portugal, to begin preparations for the Oriental apostolate. Embarking from Lisbon with 14 Jesuit brothers, Ricci arrived on September 13, 1578 to Goa, India, where St. Francis Xavier was buried.
Ricci spent some years in India, teaching in the Jesuit schools, before his priestly ordination. He celebrated his first Mass on July 26, 1580.
Soon after, the Jesuit Visitor of Missions in the Indies (including China and Japan), Alessandro Valignano, asked Father Ricci to go to Macau, then a Portuguese colony in China, to study the Chinese language and to prepare to enter mainland China, at that time impenetrable to foreigners.
The much awaited entry took place on September 10, 1583. Father Ricci and his companion Michele Ruggiere arrived in Zhaoqing, where they began to build the first house and church, finished in 1585. The small Jesuit community later moved to Shaoguan.
Well received by the Wanli Emperor of the Ming dynasty, Father Ricci was raised to the rank of Mandarin, received in the Celestial Empire, and welcomed by top civil and military officials.
“To be Chinese with the Chinese” was Father Ricci’s innovative method of evangelization, which encompassed the ability to adapt himself to local customs and traditions in order to be closer to those to whom he proclaimed the Gospel.
The way of “inculturation” chosen by the Jesuit, joined to the tireless practice of charity, bore fruits as he was able to dialogue with both important dignitaries as well as poor people, all of whom were impressed by the missionary’s great respect for Confucianism and for the Chinese cultural patrimony.
Father Ricci’s scientific knowledge also aroused great admiration. He took to China Western mathematics and geometry, as well as the great contributions of the Renaissance in the fields of geography, cartography and astronomy.
In addition to teaching numerous scientific and humanistic subjects in Chinese, he left a great number of works, such as the “Treatise on Friendship,” the “Chinese World Map,” the treatise on the “Genuine Notion of the Lord of Heaven,” “Synthesis of Christian Doctrine,” “Christianity in China,” “Commentaries” and “Letters from China.” These works contributed in a decisive way to the foundation of modern Sinology and the spread of Western knowledge in China and the whole of the East.