A message from Father Nick 82

SEE…JUDGE…ACT: Joseph Cardijn’s analytic method had a strong influence on the Second Vatican Council (1962-5). The last of the Council’s four great “Constitutions” was The Church in the Modern World – all Council documents are known by their first words in Latin, and this began with hugely positive words: “Gaudium et Spes”: not fear and trembling, but “Joy and hope”.

Looking at the world around them, the Council fathers saw new possibilities of engagement. The Church, they acknowledged,
“Profits from the experience of past ages, from the progress of the sciences, and from the riches hidden in various cultures, through which greater light is thrown on human nature and new avenues to truth are opened up. The Church learned early in its history to express the Christian message in the concepts and languages of different peoples and tried to clarify it in the light of the wisdom of their philosophers…”

This was the belief of a great missionary to China, Matteo Ricci (1552 – 1610), who was born near the Adriatic coast of Italy just after the Reformation and who grew up during the Church’s own “Counter-Reformation”.

Strong and intelligent, Ricci attended university in Rome, where he joined the Jesuit order. In 1577 he went by way of Lisbon to Goa, and there he encountered some of the pitfalls of a European mission in the east. New converts, for example, would be expected to adopt the clothes, language, names and customs of their “masters”.

Ricci’s dearest wish was to open a mission in China, and in 1583 he and a companion were given the necessary approval. On their way they did a kind of reverse adoption. They had their hair cut short and their beards shaved smooth (these would grow back), and they replaced their black soutanes with the grey cloaks worn by Buddhist bonzes – they wanted to be recognised as men of God. When brought before the local governor, they asked only for a piece of land. “There,” they said, “we will remain serving heaven until we die.”

At first it was extremely difficult. Ricci was an accomplished linguist, but he struggled with a language where five unfamiliar voice tones could change the meaning of the same sound. And the Chinese seemed to have no unambiguous word for a personal God. Much new thought would be required of the missionaries. They had brought with them a painting of Jesus as “Lord of heaven” and an image of Our Lady, and these would provide a powerful focus for their message.

But Matteo Ricci also had a deep respect for Chinese civilization, and a great love for Chinese people (fully reciprocated, even by the emperor himself.) And he understood that his mission in China must never mean the imposition of an alien, Latin culture.

As Vincent Cronin sums it up, “The Church, in fact, in order to show herself truly universal, in order to sail the China sea, must jettison all local and national prejudice, even her age-old habits of mind, and take on a cargo of Eastern wisdom compatible with her message, without deviating one point from her essential course.”