12/17/2022, 01.36
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Venerable Matteo Ricci, Pope Francis’s great gift to China

by Gianni Criveller *

The pontiff signed the decree recognising Ricci’s heroic virtues, the first stage in a process of beatification that has had a troubled history. Ricci brought the Gospel to China through the path of friendship. The communities he founded have preserved and passed on the faith, despite persecution and all sorts of hardships. Now it is possible to dream that he will become a Blessed together with his Chinese disciple and friend Xu Guangqi.

Milan (AsiaNews) – Pope Francis declared Fr Matteo Ricci venerable, making an important gift to the Church in China and all those hoping for such a result; he did it this morning, 17 December, his birthday. This means that the Church now recognises Fr Ricci’s “heroic virtues”, a key stage on the path of the Jesuit missionary’s beatification.

In an audience with Cardinal Marcello Semeraro, prefect of the dicastery for the Causes of Saints, Francis authorised the proclamation of 10 new Blessed and as well 14 new Venerables, including Father Ricci.

The cause of beatification of Matteo Ricci (Macerata 1552- Beijing 1610) followed a rather turbulent route. Since he was improperly associated for centuries with the controversial affair of Chinese Rites, his reputation was seriously harmed. The Vatican first condemned Chinese ritual practices of honouring family ancestors (1742) and then reassessed the issue and allowed them (1939).

First Pope John XXIII, then all the popes who followed him spoke highly of the Jesuit missionary, in particular, John Paul II (1982 and 2001), Benedict XVI (2010) and Francis. The latter very often pointed to Ricci as the ideal missionary, one capable of inculturation, dialogue and openness to others.

Usually the causes of beatification begin in the diocese where the candidate dies. Matteo Ricci died on 11 May 1610 at the age of 57 in Beijing where he is buried, in the Jesuit cemetery that is now included in the large garden of the Beijing Administrative College, also known as the  Beijing Municipal Party Committee School of the Communist Party of China. Given the Church’s particular situation in China, the cause of beatification has been assigned to the Diocese of Macerata, where the Venerable came from.

The original process of beatification began in 1982, but never reached a clear conclusion. In 2010, on the 400th anniversary of Fr Ricci's death, the time was finally ripe. Bishop Claudio Giuliodori restarted the process, appointing this writer to chair the historical commission, which was responsible for tracing the profile of the Macerata missionary, showing not only the heroic nature of his virtues, but also the reputation of holiness that has surrounded him since his death.

In 2013 the documentation was sent to Rome, where the cause continued, following the usually complex procedures. The pope's act this morning is at the same time a point of arrival and a significant step towards other goals.

In recent years, some suggested that the Vatican wanted to link Matteo Ricci’s process of beatification with that of his disciple and friend, Paul Xu Guangqi, a scientist, scholar and political leader originally from Shanghai, who was a fundamental pillar of Chinese Christianity.

The idea is very evocative: offer Catholics in China and around the world the opportunity to venerate both the foreign missionary and the one person who heeded his proclamation, making the Gospel the raison d’être of his life. At that time, Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian of Shanghai, now deceased, got me involved in the investigation for Xu’s beatification process, known as “Dr Paul” in Jesuit sources because he was an apostle among his people.

Unfortunately, the tragic events of the Church in Shanghai, where Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin was placed under house arrest in 2012, prevented the cause of Paul Xu from going forward. It has not yet been possible to undertake the necessary historical research and combine the two causes.

The pope’s decision to continue with Matteo Ricci is good news, as there was a risk that his cause might again be postponed indefinitely for reasons independent of the merit of the holiness of his life.

The declaration of “venerability” required the approval of the theological commission that declared his heroic virtues, as well as that of the cardinals and bishops members of the dicastery.

Fr Matteo Ricci brought the Gospel to China through the path of friendship, cultural and scientific dialogue, and accommodation. In 1595, after a series of failures that plunged him into a state of 'melancholy' (his own words), he decided to write his first book in Chinese. The title, “Friendship”, really says a lot. It was his missionary manifesto.

Friendship is in fact a Confucian virtue: the fifth of five social relations, but the only one based on freedom. The Christian humanist Ricci appreciated friendship as an evangelical and humanistic value, and it was precisely around this common value that he built a network of friends that allowed him to found Christian communities in five important cities of China.

In 1601 Ricci reached Beijing, welcomed in the Forbidden City for his scientific and cultural knowledge. He was buried in the imperial capital, the only foreigner to whom the emperor granted such a privilege. Today, Ricci is included in China in high school textbooks, remembered in the Millennium Museum, along with Marco Polo, as the only important foreigner in the country’s history.

But Ricci was above all a missionary. Like Paul of Tarsus, he suffered and gave his whole self to preach the Gospel. The communities he founded have preserved and passed on the faith and, despite persecution and all sorts of hardships, are still present among the Chinese people.

Catholics in that country know this well, which is why today is a day of joy, and one of hope for the future of the faith in the land of China.

* PIME missionary and sinologist




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