Mission and Catechesis, Alexandre De Rhodes and Inculturation in Seventeenth-Century Vietnam

By Quinn, Frederick | Anglican Theological Review, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Mission and Catechesis, Alexandre De Rhodes and Inculturation in Seventeenth-Century Vietnam


Quinn, Frederick, Anglican Theological Review


Mission and Catechesis, Alexandre de Rhodes and Inculturation in Seventeenth-Century Vietnam. By Peter Phan. Faith and Cultures series. Mayknoll, N.Y.; Orbis Books, 199S. 324 pp. $50.00 (cloth), $35.00 (paper).

Alexandre de Rhodes (1593-1660) and Peter Plum (b. 1943) are not household names, but both are gaming increased recognition for their different places in the study of world missions across a span of three widely different centuries and settings. Alexandre de Rhodes was a lifted, determined French Jesuit missionary who learned Vietnamese and built the first mission church there in 1627. His relations with the country's Mandarin leaders were always prickly, and he was twice expelled, but between 1627-1630 and 16421645 he baptized nearly nine thousand persons: devised a romanized script for the Vietnamese language, still in use; established a lay order of catechists that were the foundation for church mission work: and wrote a Catechismus, the first Vietnamese book published in the West.

The work, an early field manual for missionaries, provided an intensive eight-day course leading to baptism and included a plan of salvation and introduction to manv traditional Roman Catholic moral teachings, borrowed some wisdom from local proverbs, and refuted the "pagan" claims of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and the Vietnamese Cult of the Ancestors. The work is of special interest today, not because of its theological content, which was unexceptional, but for its attempt to cast Catholic thought within the worldview of mid-seventeenth century Vietnamese people.

The French missionary priest, who also spent time in Goa, Sri Lanka, Macao, and Persia, made no attempt to denigrate or destroy local culture in its totality, as did some other foreign religious figures then and until recent times. One of the book's most interesting sections is Plum's explanation of traditional Vietnamese religion and de Rhodes's attempts to employ aspects of it in Christian practice (pp. 92-99), such as replacing Palm Sunday processional olive branches with local coconut leaves, or creating a Tenebrae service, still in use three centuries later, that resembled classic Vietnamese theater, complete with drum and gong (p. 97).

Any student of Asian history and religions will find this work of value, for it others both a concise history of Vietnam and the first informed commentary of its kind in English on the country's complex religious map by a native speaker of Vietnamese. Especially useful is Plum's lucidly written section on "Vietnamese Indigenous Religion: the Cult of Heaven and Spirits" (pp. 24-28) that discusses both the indigenous "Cult of the Spirits" and subsequent Chinese overlays to it. Sadly, de Rhodes missed the relational aspects between what Westerners then called ancestor worship and the Christian concept of the Communion of Saints, the unity of the living and the dead, nature and humanity, in glorious harmony before God.

Peter Phan grew up in Vietnam in the 1940s and joined a missionary order at an early age, studied or taught in Rome, Paris, London, and Washington; and along the way amassed three earned doctorates in theology and canon law. He and his family were evacuated from their native Vietnam in the war's final days, and were refugees in Guam, California, and eventually Texas, where Peters first job was as a garbage collector for $2.10 an hour. Next he became an adjunct professor of religion al a local university and, within four years, head of the department. A sojourn at Catholic University. Washington, DC, was followed by a move across town to Georgetown University, where he became Professor and Chair of Catholic Social Thought for several years. …

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