In July 2012, Shanghai Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin suddenly resigned from the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association during his consecration. He received a standing ovation from members of the congregation after that announcement, but then was put under house arrest, where he remains today.
That, and the death in December of Shanghai’s 97-year-old Bishop Jin Luxian, makes a gesture towards rapprochement even less likely. Jin had wanted Ricci to be beatified along with one of Ricci’s contemporaries, named “Paul” Xu Guangqi. Xu, a scholar and colleague of Matteo Ricci, lived simultaneously as a Catholic and an imperial official, and translated several Western texts with Ricci. The thinking, says Thierry Meynard, International Director of the Beijing Center for Chinese Studies, a Jesuit research center, was that the Chinese would be more accepting of a dual beatification: one Westerner (and a good one at that) and one Chinese. But with the recent twists, the Vatican has put that process on hold.
In May, the newly anointed Pope Francis, a Jesuit, called upon the faithful to be more like Matteo Ricci and the Jesuits to build bridges and “establish a dialogue with all persons, even those who don’t share the Christian faith.”
It is a sure sign that something deliberate is happening. “I think the Vatican wants to make sure that if there is going to be a beatification, it’s going to help the Catholic Church in China,” says Meynard.
Whether that process is positive or not depends on your point of view, says Wang Meixiu, a scholar of world religions at Beijing’s Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Catholics think the move is positive, but “those outside of the church—they might think differently,” she says. While the Chinese people have great respect for Ricci, “at this sensitive period of time in history, to have him beatified is another thing.”
Brockey wonders who is behind the push for sainthood. “I don’t know whose interest it serves to have his beatification,” he says. But anyone who reviewed the historic record would see that “the man was not a saint, no two ways about it,” as Brockey says.
R. Po-Chia Hsia, author of A Jesuit in the Forbidden City and a Professor of History at Penn State, agrees. “If he’s canonized, I’ll have to eat my words,” he says. Historian Jonathan Spence’s The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci describes scenes of Ricci shouting down Buddhist monks at dinner parties. And Ricci went to plenty of dinner parties, writes Spence. He called the Chinese “barbarians” in letters home to friends and observed that slavery might be one of God’s ways to eventually convert people to Christianity.
Despite these shortcomings, beatification might be a fitting end for a man who defied expectations in life and in death. When Ricci died in 1610, Emperor Wanli ordered an imperial burial in Beijing, an honor no foreigner before him had been granted.