Can Matteo Ricci’s Beatification Mend China’s Rift With the Catholic Church?

The campaign to turn the 16th century Jesuit into a saint depends on finding a miracle. Restoring Sino/Vatican relations may require one, too.
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The tomb of Matteo Ricci, in Beijing. (Wikimedia Commons)

When Matteo Ricci walked the streets of Beijing more than 400 years ago, he was a celebrity. The Jesuit was the first Westerner to enter the gates of the Forbidden City. He impressed the emperor by predicting solar eclipses. He created an enormous map that gave Ming dynasty Chinese a sense of the rest of the world for the first time. He spoke and read Chinese well enough to translate Euclid.

And even though, after 13 years in China, he began to dress in the garb of an imperial scholar-official, his goal was to convert the Chinese to Catholicism, which he did with some success and considerable flair.

Now all he needs is a miracle or two. Literally.

In May, the Vatican body that overseas canonization pushed ahead the case for making Ricci, who died in 1610, a saint. The Catholic Church has collected hundreds of documents that provide evidence of his “heroic virtues” and has dubbed him a Servant of God, which puts him on the first rung of four steps toward full-fledged sainthood. In order for him to advance, Ricci’s supporters must now find evidence of popular devotion to Ricci, that prayers to him have cured fatal illnesses, or that his body hasn’t decayed in the 403 years since his death.

That next step might take some time, says the Reverend Gianni Criveller, the Hong Kong-based scholar assembling the historic documents for the process. Several years ago, Criveller says, a woman said she had been cured of an illness after praying to Ricci, but church officials didn’t think it was a strong-enough claim. The woman was sick, prayed to Ricci, and got well, but her case did not meet the qualification of a healing that was “complete, sudden, and cannot be explained according to medical knowledge,” Criveller says, “To make a long story short, the miracle is not there.”

Meanwhile, the real miracle might be something even more elusive: reconciliation between the Catholic Church and Beijing. Observers of Church-China relations say that the Vatican’s push to beatify Ricci now could be a political maneuver, a way to repair relations that have splintered.

Ricci has long been a symbol of how to get along with China. In a catechism called “The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven,” Ricci melded Chinese culture and Catholicism, arguing through a Socratic dialogue that Confucianism had in its beliefs the idea of a monotheistic being, shangdi. “A lot of myth-making rests on his shoulders,” says Liam Brockey, a historian of early modern Europe who is one of the foremost experts on the Jesuits’ attempts to convert China. Dominican and Franciscan missionaries felt Ricci had gone too far in drawing parallels between the two belief systems, and that controversy in part led to the Vatican’s later decision to reject the use of Chinese rites in Catholic services.

That’s what makes Matteo Ricci the “perfect image of what is a good relationship between China and the West,” says the Reverend Michel Marcil of the U.S. Catholic China Bureau in Berkeley, California.

Catholic-Chinese relations have had a rollercoaster history, with much of the ride stalled in the dips. Ricci’s tolerance of Chinese tradition included allowing new converts to continue to venerate their ancestors in religious practice. This tolerance continued for a century, until the Pope sent an emissary to Beijing to forbid missionaries from continuing the practice on pain of excommunication. The Kangxi emperor called the pope’s decree “petty” and insisted that all missionaries sign a certificate allowing Christian converts to continue practicing ancestor worship. Many of the Jesuits agreed; other Catholic missionaries refused and were expelled from China.

Rome reversed its decision against Chinese practices finally in 1939. After 1949, of course, the issue was moot. But another low point came in 2000, when Pope John Paul II canonized 120 Chinese martyrs, many of them killed during the Boxer Rebellion—and did it on October 1, the anniversary of the founding of the communist state.

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Debra Bruno is a Beijing-based journalist. She blogs at www.notbyoccident.blogspot.com.

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