03/26/2014, 00.00
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Matteo Ricci and Xu Guangqi, two saints the Chinese Church deserves to venerate together

by Benoit Vermander
The cause for the beatification of the great Jesuit missionary is underway at the Vatican, but that of his friend is mired in problems involving the Diocese of Shanghai. Yet, beatifying the two together would be a strong gesture for the Chinese Church, Chinese society and the notion of missionary charism itself. Here is an analysis by a French Jesuit.

Taipei (AsiaNews) - In May 2013, the first stage of the cause for beatification of Matteo Ricci was completed in Macerata, Ricci's home diocese. The file is now with the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in the Vatican. Calls for the beatification and canonization of Ricci have been recently amplifying.

That Ricci amply deserves to be canonized constitutes a fact that is beyond doubt. The rectitude of his character, the unwavering patience, perseverance and humility he showed all along his Chinese journey the fruits reaped from his mission - all this amply testifies to the sainthood of a man who is very much respected and even loved by many Chinese.

The question is: should he be beatified alone, or does his cause open up opportunities for a new approach on such matters?

Ricci started his Chinese pilgrimage by publishing a little booklet entitled "On Friendship.' His beatification process should reflect the spirit under which he conducted his missionary endeavor.

In other words: do not beatify Matteo Ricci without beatifying Xu Guangqi at the same time.

There are three reasons for uniting the two friends into a common cause. First, Xu Guangqi is also a man whose life speaks of sainthood. Second, this will change the way missionary history is ordinarily presented. Third, this is by far the best gift Rome could make to the Chinese Church and China proper.

Xu Guangqi (1562-1633) is known in China as an outstanding scholar and public servant, the author of an encyclopaedic treatise on agricultural techniques, a patriot who was witnessing the progressive weakening of the Ming dynasty and trying to defend it against aggressions, and a mathematician and astronomer. Still, these humane qualities would not been enough for proclaiming him a saint. So, what else does he have to show for himself? First, let us note that Xu fully involved himself into practical pursuits only after his conversion experience, the depth of which seems impressive: his baptism, in 1603, was prepared by long meditations over the Chinese Classics, repeated experiences of failure and grief, a dream, in 1600, of a temple with three chapels, interpreted in 1605 as an image of the Trinity, and deep-felt emotion when seeing an image of the Madonna with the Child in Nanjing. Once baptized, he brings his whole household to the new faith ¬ not only relatives and servants depending upon him, but his own father as well. His descendants, especially his granddaughter Camilla Xu, will protect and foster the Shanghainese Christian community.

During the thirty years that separate his baptism from his death, Xu Guangqi continuously protects, advises and even guides the missionaries, while developing a spiritual life anchored in self-examination and dialogue among traditions. Among other testimonies, we possess the one of Longobardo, a Jesuit who was quite opposed to Ricci's acculturation strategy: through a kind of "counter enquiry" on Chinese converts' orthodoxy, Longobardo unwillingly lets us appreciate the depth and inner freedom of Xu's spiritual vision.

Moreover, the way Xu translated his faith into courageous and practical plans of action reminds us of Ricci's moral character: both men are less prone to write about their feelings than to engage into what they sense to be their calling. This may also recalls us of the beginning of the "Contemplation for attaining love" in the Spiritual Exercises: "Love ought to show itself in deeds over and above words ¬ and love consists in interchange between two parties ... So that if the one has knowledge, he gives to the one who has it not." Such style of interchange nurtures the friendship that Xu developed with Ricci and inspires his attitude throughout his career. If Xu did not experience martyrdom, as Saint Thomas More did, his style, courage and achievements are very much reminiscent of this other great lay Catholic saint.

The joint beatification of Ricci and Xu would therefore change the way missionary history is often told ¬ not a history of passive reception but rather of active collaboration. It would show that the first converts displayed exceptional openness and fortitude when working with missionaries in the building of the local church. It would also show that these converts brought in from the start the riches of their traditions. It will tell the faithful that all charismas are needed and must associate when grounding a Christian community into the life of the Spirit.

Finally, a common beatification would be much more meaningful for contemporary Chinese people ¬ including Chinese Catholics ¬ than the one of a lone missionary would be. It would send a message of friendship, collaboration, and spiritual equality. Even more importantly, the multifaceted figure of Xu - one of the "three pillars of the Chinese Church" (along with Li Zhizhao and Yang Tingyun) - can operate reconciliation among all sectors of the Church as well as between Church and society. Besides, the association of Xu and Ricci will speak of a Church that strives towards universality in the midst of a dialogue between local cultures and in the variety of life experiences.

It remains true that the present difficulties met by the diocese of Shanghai make the cause of Xu's beatification much slower and more complicated than the one of Ricci. But these very difficulties should prompt Rome to instruct the case with even more diligence ¬ and there are many roads through which such case can be advanced. More than four hundred years have passed since Ricci went to Heaven. I am convinced that he would willingly wait a few years more, so as to be recognized Blessed and Saint in the company of his friend Xu Guangqi.

This article first appeared on eRenlai Magazine.

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