A news item: several sources suggest that the cause of Fr. Matteo Ricci, SJ (1552-1610) is moving forward due to the renewed interest of Bishop Claudio Giuliodori of Macerata, the diocese of Ricci’s birth. Though the cause officially opened in 1984 and Ricci was declared “Servant of God” in 1985, proceedings stalled for unspecified reasons. On January 24th, however, the diocesan tribunal finally swore in officials (including an official postulator, Fr. Tony Witwer, SJ) and opened an investigation to collect historical documentation.
Of course, since Ricci was the pioneer and architect of acculturated evangelization in China (one can find helpful information about him here and here), the news is also significant for the whole field of missiology. How does one present the Gospel to a culture that has developed for millennia without reference to it? Certain prudential judgments of Ricci regarding the translation of God into Mandarin and the Chinese practice of ancestor “worship” were eventually condemned in the Chinese Rites Controversy. From a distance of three centuries, however, these decisions seem to have been premature.
Though there is much to say about Ricci’s approach to evangelization, I would highlight one encouraging aspect. A constant that one finds in both Ricci (who dealt mostly with upper and intellectual classes in China) and in effective “missionaries” to the affluent West is the appeal to the restless heart. A classic example would be the second of eight Mandarin songs that Ricci composed to help prepare the way for the Gospel:
A shepherd boy fell sad one day,
Hating the hillside on which he stood;
He thought a distant hill he saw
More beautiful from afar,
And that going there would wipe away his sorrows.
So he set off to that distant hill,
But as he drew near it
It looked less good than it had from afar.
O shepherd boy, shepherd boy,
How can you expect to transform yourself
By changing your dwelling place?
If you move away can you leave yourself behind?
Sorrow and joy sprout in the heart,
If the heart is peaceful, you’ll be happy everywhere,
If the heart is in turmoil, every place brings sorrow.
A grain of dust in your eye
Brings discomfort speedily;
How can you then ignore this sharp awl!
That pierces your heart?
If you yearn for things outside yourself
You will never obtain what you are seeking
Why not put your own heart in order
And find peace on your own hillside?
Old and new writers alike give this advice:
there’s no advantage to roaming outside,
Keep the heart inside, for
That brings the profit.
That the message of songs such as these was largely accessible to the people of 16th century China, points to the universal truth of the human heart. It yearns and searches in every age and in every land. What makes Ricci a likely candidate for beatification, however—not just a shrewd judge of character or a rare polymath—was his unshakeable conviction that Christ is the end of every heart’s yearning.