Bl. Matteo Ricci?


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.


7 Responses to Bl. Matteo Ricci?

  1. Henry says:

    Thank you for sharing this information with us! The poem is magnificent and your final statement: his unshakeable conviction that Christ is the end of every heart’s yearning. is precisely why I have become interested in him these last few years. Can you recommend a good book on him?

  2. Henry says:

    Sorry, I hit the “post” button too quickly. I have read, The Wise Man from the West, which I liked very much, but what I would like to read is his actual writings (e.g., Treatise on Friendship & Ten Discourses by a Paradoxical Man). Have the Jesuits translated those into English?

    • There is a volume of his writings, The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven, published in 1985.

      As an interesting aside, I would also recommend the writings of de Nobili (Teaching Wisdom to the Wise — I think that’s the name of the collection of de Nobili texts translated into English).

  3. Qualis Rex says:

    I think the danger with Ricci’s approach is that were the church not already so institutional during his time, there would have been a definite risk of creating a “sect” or “cult” as we have seen time and time again. While I am very much an advocate of creating rites which culturally and/or linguistically resonate the most with a particular society, we must remember that a watered-down version of the Catholic faith is not “better than nothing”.

    Two quick examples to underscore my point: 1) the “Missa Luba” of the Congo, whose beauty nearly brings tears to my eyes everytime I hear it 2) Chicago’s Saint Sabina’s “Faith Based Community” with Pfleger as ringleader. The former was a genuine construct to reach out to the local population and offer a completely orthodox Catholic liturgy encorporating elements familiar to the them which in no way detracted from its message, spirit or reverence. The latter is a pittiable condenscending attempt steeped in an anachronistic “white guilt” and belief that the local population can’t theologically or practically handle “real” Catholicism; so this is the next best thing. Tripe.

    The Catholic church in China is indeed a success story (as is the church in Japan, IMHO) given the centuries of harsh persecution and oppression. It’s not about numbers, it’s about an enduring faith, a beacon of good news, and a legacy of orthodoxy available to future generations should they wish to receive it. If Bl Matteo Ricci is in any way responsible for this legacy, then I too hope he will be canonized. Either way, I will of course submit to the verdict of the church on this one.

    • Henry says:

      Wonderful comments and an important distinction between “Missa Luba” and Chicago -thank you for making that point!



  4. Giovanni says:

    Qualis Rex is absolutely right.

    Excellent Post.

  5. The wisdom of what Ricci both did, and accomplished
    will probably continue to be debated for Millennia,
    because we confront mere “reason” as logic:
    WE ONLY KNOW what WE have created, period!
    Revelation is not our creation: it is the Creator’s!
    Nature is not our creation: it is the Creator’s!

    So, Church HISTORY is our creation: NOT the
    Creator’s! Therefore, after these 2 Millennia it’s
    time to stop the childish lie that there is something
    sacred in this creation of ours! WE ARE a pilgrim
    church, and will forever continue to CHANGE and GROW
    until the 2nd Coming! Immature adult parading in the name of intelligence which is nothing more than
    childish pablum needs to end in this 3rd Millennium!

    Ricci had it right: the Church did not, and needs
    to eat its words, and learn from it so it stops
    silencing the Ricci’s and the Chardin’s and the
    many other prophetic voices to come!

    Behind all that is the tool of the mind in only
    using “rhetoric” without realizing it, not “givens!”
    It is rhetoric that got history into existence!
    All history, all ethics, sit at the feet of
    rhetoric: we will never have one and only one
    solution therein to anything: we are not angels!
    We are finite humans!
    THAT was the key argument by Origen against Celsius
    that we are not an idea or philosophy but an Event!
    Christianity can only demonstrate its orthodoxy,
    not its source. Its source is beyond it: it is Divine!
    Moreover, the pure genius (or inspiration?) of St.
    John was similar -to not appeal to reason, to logic-
    but to the “afterlife” as the reason, the purpose,
    to who and what we are! Anyone who takes his/er eyes
    off that, will always definitively err, and even
    at times fail!
    Eternal Life is the reason for ourselves and
    therefore by definition, Ricci in attempting to
    present Eternal Life to a culture different from
    Rome’s was right, and Rome was pathetically wrong
    in clinging to IT OWN definition of “its” HISTORY!
    Most forget that even Augustin was novel, LIKE
    Ricci when he deviated from using philosophy (the
    Greek norm for the times for itself and for its gods!)
    to defend Christianity but instead used the vehicle
    of belief: ‘I believe in order to know’ and not
    the other way around!

    Neither reason, nor tradition, are omnipotent!
    We have to admit “rhetoric” into our vocabulary
    and stop pride ruling our assumed definitions of
    This dilemma of “knowing” can be cast in such
    terms of analytical vs. rhetorical forms of
    knowing. “Analytics” tends toward the descriptive, that which does not change, and thus science.
    “Rhetoric” in its ancient form concerns human
    decisions about that which necessarily could be
    In Cicero’s words, as an act of intentional
    imagination built on a shared vision of the good,
    the beautiful, and the true, rhetoric was the ENGINE
    of civilization, that is, of human History!.
    Since science, philosophy, and theology, even as
    they seek to analyze and explain the world, are
    themselves deeply historically embedded -abstract
    constructions of particular individuals- then history,
    even with all its problematics and ambiguities,
    is nevertheless the fundamental category of human
    existence! With therein standing at the core of
    history, personal agency and community, thereby
    negating any certitudinal permanence in any
    definitional attempts to circumscribe God with
    our finite pathetic mere logic!!!
    Rome needs to learn humility from a Ricci, from
    a Chardin, and never again associate with the Rabbi
    concept of leadership!
    Knowledge is to be in the service of life and
    not the other way around, an end in itself!

    Christianity originally insisted that it was a
    story about an Agent, whose fundamental concern
    was neither knowledge nor even individual virtue,
    but God’s life in us pointing to Eternal Life:
    otherwise we stay 6 feet under with nowhere to go!!!

    The parallel (for me) exemple of Ricci’s inspired
    genius is de Brebeuf’s similar profound poem written
    for the Huron’s in the words of the “Huron Carol,”
    set to the adapted music of “Silent Night!”

    May the Spirit get through the arrogance of our
    thick skins and thin it over the Millennia as we
    grow towards the Omega Point of our history,
    a history driven more by Kyros timing
    than our limited Kronos time!!!

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