Today is the 400th anniversary of the birth of Mateo Ricci. One of the first Jesuits to go to China, he was confronted with an intricate and ancient culture where no one showed any interest in being “converted” to Christianity.
One of the best Jesuit qualities (would that we could see it on display more often… starting with me) is the ability to rapidly adapt. Ricci quickly rethought his mission and, abandoning his Western lifestyle for that of a Confucian scholar, sought to adapt the Jesuit way of proceeding to Chinese culture. He asked at the Imperial Court what they would be interested in learning about. He was told that they wanted optics (for telescopes and the like), cartographers and mathematicians. He sent to Rome for Jesuits with these skills and they were speedily sent to China.
Ricci and the other Jesuits blazed a trail of “enculturation” (dialoging with, rather than preaching to, local cultures, religions and traditions) centuries before it became the accepted thing to do. Their flexibility, however, met with resistance from other Catholic Orders and soon the Vatican was being urged to put an end to this lack of orthopraxis.
I realize it is the hopeless Romantic in me, but I often wonder what might have happened to China (and to the Jesuits) if the experiment had been allowed to continue…