Dialogo è accettare l'altro come è e come egli stesso si definisce e si presenta a noi, di non cessare di essere se stessi mentre ci si confronta con il diverso, di essere consapevoli che la nostra identità esce arricchita e non sminuita da chi di questa identità non accetta alcuni elementi, magari anche quelli che noi riteniamo fondamentali. La riconciliazione è possibile, tra i cristiani e nella compagnia degli uomini. (Enzo Bianchi, priore della Comunità di Bose)

Time is ripe to follow Ricci’s lead

Today, May 11, is the 400th anniversary of the death of Matteo Ricci (Li Madou) the legendry Jesuit who was born in 1552 and died in 1610. His life and the example of his approach to China have been a matter of constant fascination, study and research, not least in the last six months with three international conferences - in Taipei, Paris and San Francisco -assessing his significance.

He is not only someone novel in Catholic missionary approaches. He was the first to propose and successfully live a completely fresh way for the West to engage with China. Fascination with his achievement extends well beyond Church circles.

But why did he not simply replicate the example of Francis Xavier, credited with baptizing tens, if not hundreds of thousands across Asia? Born in the year Xavier died (1552), Ricci followed a completely different path.

Where did this come from? His mentor was Alessandro Valignano (1539-1606), his Jesuit novice master in Italy and later Superior in Asia, who hand picked him and a few others to pioneer a completely different approach to the Church’s mission in Asia: “an Indian Catholicism for India, a Japanese Catholicism for Japan, a Chinese Catholicism for China.”

To achieve this - and Ricci is the most vivid instance and most successful embodiment of it - the Christian missionary has to undertake a journey: into the minds and hearts, language and culture, symbols and sensibility of those he or she seeks to evangelize. And, coming out the other side, a new account of God’s presence in the world, the meaning of Jesus and the life of the Church can unfold.

But what was the trigger for such an adventurous departure from common missionary practice that put Christian faith and European culture together.

Clearly, the imagination of Valignano was essential. He thought outside the square of European culture. And the enterprising genius and dazzling linguistic facility of Ricci made a spectacular Renaissance man into a stunning global figure.

But maybe one other possible element in this unfolding is the brief window of opportunity that opened at just the time Ricci arrived in China, entering Middle Kingdom through the Portuguese colony of Macau. It was just these years - the 1580s - that witnessed the eclipse of Portuguese colonialism, which provided a powerful and confining boundary.

It was between 1580 and 1640 that Portugal completely lost its presence and initiative as an expanding colonial empire. In those 60 years, Portugal was run by Spain and Portuguese management of their colonies lapsed. Arriving in China when he did meant that his time of engagement with Asia and China was one free of colonial baggage and the resentment that always came to Europeans who were seen as the enemy. Portugal’s time as the dominant colonial power in Asia and China was finished.

As colonialists, the Portuguese don’t get good press. And deservedly so. When Saint Francis Xavier visited Batavia (today’s Jakarta) in the 1540s, he was so appalled by the behavior of the Portuguese that he felt compromised in preaching a Gospel they were meant to exemplify. So he moved on.

But in 1582, with Portugal a spent force, Ricci could arrive with a clean slate: He was not encumbered by that connection as he began his engagement with Chinese scholars and administrators eventually reaching the Imperial Court. As a Catholic country, the Portuguese Kings accepted spreading the Gospel (which mostly meant also imposing European culture) as part of their challenge. Francis Xavier came to Asia as missionary sent not by the Pope so much as someone who set out from Europe following a personal request by the Portuguese King to the founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius Loyola. Not so Ricci.

It is part of Ricci’s enduring significance that he models a missionary approach whose context and presuppositions have never been more relevant than they are today. In Asia, liberated in the last 60 years from the burden of any identification with Europe, its politics and cultures, Christianity is in the right space to further develop Valignano’s dream and the practice of Ricci and his companions in China, Vietnam and India: Christianity and Church life that are “an India Catholicism for India, a Japanese Catholicism for Japan and a Chinese Catholicism for China.”
Father Michael Kelly SJ is executive director of UCA News since Jan. 1, 2009. He has worked in radio and TV production since 1982 and as a journalist in Australia and Asia for various publications, religious and secular.



10 maggio 2010