Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Between Russian Reality and Chinese Dream: The Jesuit Mission in Serbia, 1812-1820

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Between Russian Reality and Chinese Dream: The Jesuit Mission in Serbia, 1812-1820

Article excerpt

The Jesuit mission in Siberia, which lasted only eight years, is a littleknown but interesting episode in the history of the Catholic Church and the Society of Jesus in Russia.' In spite of its peripheral location, far from the political and cultural centers, the mission reflected the central tendencies of the stormy period of the Napoleonic wars and the post-- Congress of Vienna changes in Russian internal policy. Its history proved that the Jesuits were the pawns in the political struggle, used by the autocratic system to exclusively serve its own goals.' Caught between the interests of the state authorities, the Orthodox Church, and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Russia, the efforts of the Society of Jesus were destined to fail. The establishment and activities of the Jesuit mission in Siberia reflected two different goals. The Russian government maintained a growing interest in economic development and expanding settlement. The Christian religious services were intended to encourage European newcomers to permanently settle in Siberia and to unify the new Siberian provinces with the"Old Russia," as well as to maintain and stabilize Russian power over the areas close to Russia's neighbor, China. The Jesuits, on the other hand, were interested in restoring their own missions in China. The establishment of a forward position in Irkutsk, the Russian city situated close to the Chinese border, seemed to have a promising perspective for the future. The history of the mission showed how the Jesuits' "Chinese dream" was challenged by Russian political and religious reality.

The Siberian mission was established during the period of suppression of the Society of Jesus and just a few years before its restoration in 1814. This was possible because in spite of the suppression, the Society continued to survive in the Russian Empire. Pope Clement XIV's brief Dominus ac Redemptor dissolved the Society, but the Russian Empress Catherine the Great (1762-1796) ruled that the Pope's decision could not have power and authority in Russia.3 So, the Jesuits from Belorusia and Lithuania, the territories of the Polish Commonwealth annexed by Russia in 1772, continued to carry out their pastoral activity in various parts of the Russian Empire. During the period of 1773-1820 this surviving fragment of the Society of Jesus had its headquarters in the Belorusian town of Polock.4 With the support of the tsars Paul 1 (1796-- 1801) and Alexander 1 (1801-1825), Jesuits were able to work in the Russian capital, St. Petersburg, and establish new parishes and schools in Russia and in the new territories adjoining the Empire.5 But it was not until March 7, 1801, when the pope, Pius VII, in his bull Catholicae Fidei partially approved Jesuit activity and thus allowed the Russian group to expand by permitting Jesuits in other countries to join them as branches of the Russian province. After the bull "the great surge of missionary zeal moved through the Jesuits in Russia:'6 This revived one of the favorite, never-forgotten dreams of the Society, to restore the missions in China, although the superiors of the Society were conscious of the anti-Christian policy of the Ch'ing Emperors, and of the contemporary Emperor Chia Ch'ing.7 The Jesuit generals Gabriel Gruber (1802-- 1805) and Thaddeus (Tadeusz) Brzozowski (1805-1820) looked for well-educated candidates of the kind still welcomed in China, especially scientists and mathematicians, who could replace the old generation of missionaries-courtiers. In 1805 three Jesuit Fathers unsuccessfully tried to arrange a trip, with permission from the church authorities, from Polotsk, through St. Petersburg, then to Lisbon, and by sea to China, as part of Russian embassy staffs One year later a new and unexpected possibility appeared.

Establishing the Siberian Mission

Tsar Alexander I, trying to reorganize and modernize his huge Empire, was concerned with finding a more effective way of joining peripheral areas of Siberia to Russia. …

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