Missionaries with different approaches to evangelization

Evangelization, the sharing with others that Good News which we have received through no merit of our own, is a privilege and duty of every Christian. Two exemplary models of such work are the Jesuits Francis Xavier (1506-1552) and Matteo Ricci (1552-1610). These missionaries embodied in very different ways the difficult and yet rewarding task of living out the Gospel mandate to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:16).

Francis Xavier, a confidant of Ignatius of Loyola and original member of the Society of Jesus, studied and worked in Paris, Venice, and Rome before being summoned to Lisbon by the Portuguese King John III (nicknamed “John the Pious”). John was interested in evangelizing his nation’s colonies in Asia and South America. Ignatius agreed to send Xavier to the Portuguese settlements in India in 1541. After more than a year of nearly unendurable and dangerous sea travel around the tip Africa and through Mozambique, Xavier arrived at the Indian province of Goa. He spent the monsoon season there, and then traveled to the fishing villages along the southern coast of India. He spent his time ministering to the physical and spiritual needs of the Indian people; constantly teaching children and adults, nursing the sick and leprous, comforting the dying. Although he preached in Portuguese, his words were translated into the local dialects of Konkani and set to melodies in the hope of making his teaching more accessible. It is estimated that he baptized more than 40,000 people during his life.

Xavier continued on to Malacca (present-day Malaysia) and onto other islands in the Pacific Rim, sailing eventually as far as Japan. It is said that during an extraordinarily severe storm, he lost his crucifix only to have it miraculously returned by a crab. Statues and prayer cards of Xavier often include crustacean reminders of this episode.

His missionary zeal led him ever-further from his European roots. After a number of years evangelizing in Japan, he set sail once again in the hopes of founding new churches in China. He got as far as Sancian, an island less than ten miles off the coast of the mainland. While arranging to find a way into the intensely insular Chinese society of the period, Xavier took ill and died on the island. His body was transferred to Goa, where it remains to this day in the Basilica of Bom Jesus. He was canonized in 1622 by Gregory XV. The Novena of Grace held in Xavier’s honor from March 4-12 every year is particularly efficacious in obtaining blessings and favors through the intercession of the saint.

Matteo Ricci employed a unique but equally impressive method of evangelization. An Italian by birth, Ricci was trained in mathematics, cosmology and astronomy during his studies in Rome. When sent to the still unevangelized and unwelcoming Chinese imperial courts, Ricci learned Mandarin Chinese, adopted the clothes and manners of the educated officials, and ingratiated himself to philosophically-minded people there. Ricci’s attempts to use the existing Chinese frameworks of thought to introduce new insights regarding Salvation History prove that he was remarkably cultured, theologically innovative, and dramatically forward-looking. His introduction of European maps and cartography, intricate clockwork and timekeeping techniques, astronomical calculations and trigonometry all combined to convince the Chinese that the world beyond their borders was not strictly barbarous, and helped establish credibility for his spiritual as well as intellectual messages.

Thus, Ricci’s labors exemplified one of the earliest and most famous examples of “incultration,” that is to say, of placing oneself within divergent perspectives and appreciating the congruent points of contact between cultures, as opposed to importing an alien and strictly European Christianity onto new converts steeped in other practices and belief systems. Such efforts prefigure contemporary efforts which fulfill the Second Vatican Council’s call to “reflect attentively on how Christian religious life might be able to assimilate the ascetic and contemplative traditions, whose seeds were sometimes planted by God in ancient cultures already prior to the preaching of the Gospel” (Ad Gentes 18). Since the font of all truth and goodness is the one God, the official teaching of the Catholic Church dating back to the earliest Fathers rejects none of those elements which are true, holy, and beautiful in other traditions, but rather seeks to incorporate these elements within her kindly embrace and to recognize in them semina Verbi (“seeds of the Word”).

Pope Benedict XVI has consistently endorsed such a viewpoint, stating in a recent speech “Each people should make the revealed message penetrate into their own culture, and express the salvific truth with their own language. This implies a very exacting work of ‘translation,’ as it requires finding adequate terms to propose anew the richness of the revealed Word, without betraying it.” (General Audience, June 17, 2009).

After his death in 1610, Ricci continued to be highly regarded by subsequent Chinese citizens and leaders. Even modern-day Chinese government officials recognize his contribution to the dialogue between East and West. He has often been adopted as a patron by those with interest in inter-religious affairs, and his tomb in Beijing is still visited by people of every race and creed who seek fraternal, respectful and mutually enlightening dialogue between divergent religions and cultures. His cause for beatification was completed in 2001 and many join me in the hope that he will be given the honor in 2010, the 400th anniversary of his death.

Recent Vatican documents such as Nostra Aetate, Dialogue and Proclamation and Novo Millennio Ineunte assert that contemporary evangelization must often cross new boundaries, more commonly philosophical and cultural distances than the geographical ones that faced Francis Xavier and Matteo Ricci. Today’s courses to trek are, however, no less daunting. Twenty-first century Christians are called to have frank exchange with men and women from every and no faith-stance. But they are simultaneously given the commission by Christ to give witness to His life, death, and Resurrection. It is most certainly a delicate, but invigorating task; to remain open to and learn from authentic insights from the radically distinct other, while standing counter-culturally and prophetically against those elements of today’s society which remain incompatible with Catholic faith.

Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is a Ph.D. candidate in systematic theology at Fordham University.

Categories: Growing in Faith

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