Magazine article U.S. Catholic

From West to East: Matteo Ricci's Spirituality of Encounter Continues to Open Doors for Christianity Today

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

From West to East: Matteo Ricci's Spirituality of Encounter Continues to Open Doors for Christianity Today

Article excerpt

When I arrived in Taiwan 20 years ago to start a Claretian mission, I didn't know much about Matteo Ricci. Sure, I had heard of this Jesuit missionary in some long-forgotten high school history class, but it was only after my arrival that I discovered this fellow European kindred spirit.

Matteo Ricci was born on October 6,1552 in Macerata, Italy. At age 16 he went to Rome to study law, and three years later he joined the Jesuits at the Roman College. There Ricci had three Jesuit mentors: his novice master, Alessandro Valignano, who in 1573 would become responsible for the Jesuit missions in the Far East; Christopher Clavius, a mathematician and leading European astronomer; and Robert Bellarmine, who would later become one of the most prominent cardinals of the Counter-Reformation.

Ricci departed for the Far East in 1578, first to Goa, a Portuguese colony in India, where he finished his studies for the priesthood and was ordained in 1581. The following year, at Valignano's request, he sailed on to Macao to assist in the Jesuits' planned mission into mainland China. From Macao, he and his fellow missionary Michele Ruggieri moved into Canton and finally settled in the southern Chinese city of Zhaoqing, where for six years they deepened their studies of the Chinese language and culture.

Expelled from there by a new viceroy, Ricci moved his mission to Shaozhou, where he taught mathematics to Chinese scholars, and then to Nanjing, as foreigners were banned from Beijing at the time. Finally, in 1600, he and three Jesuit companions started their travel to Beijing, where Ricci would live from 1601 until his death on May 11,1610.

The permission to reside in Beijing gave Ricci and his companions the stability they needed for their mission work. Ricci used a two-pronged

approach. First, he devoted himself to the transmission of Western science and technology to win the friendship of curious Chinese scholars. Ricci's accurate prediction of eclipses and other astronomical events necessary for the preparation of the imperial calendar gave him access to the inner court of Emperor Wanli. He also helped translate Euclid's Elements of Geometry into Chinese and took care of the different gifts--such as mechanical clocks and a clavichord--he had given to the emperor. Finally, with the help of two Chinese collaborators, he produced several versions of his Chinese "Map of the Myriad Countries of the World."

Ricci's second approach was the writing of a comprehensive presentation of Catholic doctrine in a language and categories that related well to Chinese traditional culture and Confucian classics.

His one goal was to win the Chinese people--starting with its scholars and ruling class--for the kingdom of God. In recognition of his contributions and in an extraordinary exception to the prevailing law, Emperor Wanli allowed Ricci to be buried in the capital on imperial grounds.

Matteo Ricci's spirituality and personality were deeply influenced by the humanist current sweeping Europe at the time. The Renaissance opened the eyes of medieval Europe to a new conception of the human being, the universe, and God, all of which led many to think outside the medieval theological box.

In coming to China, I too have realized that my vision of the human being, the universe, and God is based in a Western paradigm, and that I need to shed that to immerse myself more deeply in the East. …

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