One of my all-time favorite gospel-translating saints is the 16th-century Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci. By “gospel-translating,” I mean the apologetic and missionary move of entering a culture and finding the best points of connection to the gospel, thereby the better to present the gospel in a compelling way.
Here’s an excerpt from a sketch of Ricci that highlights this “translating” aspect of his ministry. Many thanks to Msgr. David Q. Liptak:
Father Ricci is especially significant because, as Pope Benedict explains, he represents in a missionary “a unique case of a felicitous synthesis between the proclamation of the Gospel and the Dialogue with the culture of the people to whom he brought it.” Moreover, he constitutes “an example of balance between doctrinal clarity and prudent pastoral action.”
Inculturation was his genius, therefore. Father Ricci was a scientist and a philosopher as well as a theologian. He was able to enter China by virtue of his scientific knowledge; cartography, for example, and mathematics, and astronomy. But his ultimate motivation was primarily to bring to China the Gospel and its humanism, with all its moral and spiritual values, without prejudice to all that is positive in the Chinese tradition – while enriching this tradition with the wisdom of Christ. No one has accomplished this better in China, before or since.
Consider the circumstances of his time. In 1580, the year of Ricci’s priestly ordination, the mysterious Middle Kingdom had long been sealed off from the Western world. Following intensive language and cultural studies, Ricci settled at Chaoking; it was August 1582. In 1585, he and a colleague established a church and residence – the first such buildings since medieval Franciscans launched their mission to Cathay.
Almost overnight, Father Ricci’s scientific and mathematical talents became known. He astonished the Chinese with his Venetian prisms, sundials, clocks, star-charts and maps. And he displayed great European books of wisdom and culture. Soon, Ricci was entering the world of China’s literati and academicians. Then, after much preparation, he trekked to Imperial Peking, whose walls he reached in September 1598. Rebuffed for an interval, he retreated, returning in two years. Then, bearing an Imperial invitation (a summons, really), he entered the Forbidden City on 24 Jan. 1601, and to the amazement of many, was allowed residence therein.
Father Ricci’s tenure in the Chinese capital was hardly without tensions. There were those at hand whose ambitions often thwarted his vision for a China steeped in the Gospel, albeit clearly reflective of compatible Chinese traditions. And there were those in the Church at large who, failing to comprehend his efforts (or misreading them), regularly inserted obstacles in his path. Yet, when this “Master of the Great West” died, his grave, just outside the Imperial City, was the gift of the Emperor. Father Ricci today ranks as the most venerated foreigner in Chinese history. [Note: the map of the “Far East” above was drawn by Ricci himself.]
You can finish the post here.
- Missionary to the Forbidden City (nytimes.com)