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Heralding Ricci, pope sets heartening tone

Pope John Paul II’s reconciling words last week to the Chinese people are reassuring. Marking the 400th anniversary of celebrated Jesuit missionary Fr. Matteo Ricci’s arrival in Beijing, the pope called for better relations between the Holy See and China. He apologized for “past and present” wrongs committed by the church.

“I regret that in many people these failings may have given the impression of a lack of respect and esteem for the Chinese people ... making them feel that the church was motivated by feelings of hostility toward China,” he said.

Beijing responded cautiously, saying it will study the papal appeal. One Chinese official added China’s longstanding caveats that diplomatic relations cannot happen until the Vatican severs its ties with Taiwan and pledges not to interfere in China’s internal affairs. The latter is code for, “We will appoint our own bishops, thank you.”

Diplomatically, the apology is unlikely to break the logjam.

More significant is the lavish praise Pope John Paul continues to direct toward Ricci and his prescient inculturation efforts. As John Paul noted in his address, Ricci studied Chinese language, culture and history for 21 years before traveling to Beijing to approach the emperor and his court. He dressed as a Confucian scholar and taught mathematics and science -- not catechism.

Soon Ricci and his fellow Jesuits were winning friends and gaining influence in high places. Their success drew other missionaries to China. After a time, some thought the Jesuits had lost touch with the one true faith. They sent word back to Rome. In 1709, Pope Clement XI officially condemned the Jesuits’ efforts. Chinese ancestor worship had to be condemned, Rome insisted. It was a fatal mistake. Persecutions almost immediately broke out, and for the next 100 years Christianity was viewed as a hostile and alien force.

Who are the Riccis of today? How is the church treating them?

As the pope noted: Ricci sought no privilege and asked only to serve. This was his approach to evangelism, the same approach advocated by virtually every Asian bishop who spoke at the April 1998 synod on Asia. The Asian bishops said repeatedly that “witness and dialogue” are key to winning Asian hearts. Their approach was repeatedly rebuffed by Vatican clerics during and after the synod. Proclamation of Jesus as unique savior of the world is the command of the gospel, the prelates insisted.

The issue is not minor, it is central to how the church approaches cultures where Christianity is a minority. It has to do with the importance one places on the idea of inculturation. It has to do with how the Word can best be transmitted across cultures.

Both the tone and message contained in Pope John Paul’s remarks last week were at striking odds with Dominus Jesus, the August 2000 letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith aimed at attacking the Riccis of today, while triumphantly proclaiming the unique and superior character of Roman Catholicism.

That there is more than one voice coming from the Vatican near the end of a pontificate is not surprising. Conservatives want to fasten down their gains. Progressives want to set the stage for the next pope. For the moment, however, one can take heart that the life and work of Matteo Ricci, after four centuries, continues to be celebrated in both Rome and Beijing.

Ricci learned to know Chinese culture. Today, unlike four centuries back, our church is graced with culturally adept, faith-filled Asians who are committed to evangelization. Will we listen adequately to what they have to say?

National Catholic Reporter, November 2, 2001