History of Asian Missions

A bimonthly missionary letter to foster prayers for Asia
No. 5

I - History of the Asian Missions - China Part 2
The Man from the West - Fr. Matteo Ricci S.J.
The Salvation of a Soul
For the Missions of Asia: One Million Hail Marys Daily

I - History of the Asian Missions China - Part 2

Saints are hard to deal with.  Their convictions burn them up.  It is pointless to question the validity of their ideals.  Each of their acts has the purity of something from the fire and can hardly be put into words that measure up to the fact.  There is an inevitability about them which, like of a fire out of control, leaves little to be done but to record it.  John of Montecorvino was such a man, such a saintly man.  The fire which was his person and his flaming soul lit smaller fires that burned on in Peking for a few decades after he himself burned out.  And that is much more than can be said for most Europeans who went and lived there.

Friar John was born in 1247 several years before Marco Polo saw the light of Venice.  After studying at a university, he entered the Franciscan Order and gained the reputation of being "a fervent devotee and follower of St. Francis, upright and austere."  Between the time of his ordination and his first mission abroad he apparently gained some renown as a preacher and as a theologian.  By 1289, he had been in the Levant for some years and was then a legate of the Pope at the court of the king of Armenia.

Hearing Friar John’s account of the state of friars in the Middle East in 1289, the Pope saw a man determined and strong in missionary zeal, with a heart set on the conquest of the souls of Asia.  He decided to send the right man to the right place.  Equipped with a battery of letters to almost every known ruler through whose territory he might have to pass, John of Montecorvino was sent off toward China about the beginning of 1291.

His travels brought him first to Ormuz, on the Persian Gulf, then by coastal navigation to Malabar, the southwestern part of India, from which he sailed round the tip of the land to the Coromandel or eastern coast at St. Thome, near Modern Madras.  Here he stayed for thirteen months near the shrine of St. Thomas, the "doubting apostle".  At the end of these thirteen months, having converted some hundred faithful, Friar John left for China his real destination.

The next news we gave comes from Peking itself, in the second of Friar John’s letters.  Perhaps it is natural that he says nothing of the voyage nor of the port where he landed in China, nor of how he traveled to the great city; for the letter was not written until he had been eight years in Peking and the strangeness of his surroundings had worn off.  The letter simply says: "... And I proceeding on my further journey, made my way to Cathay....  To the emperor I presented the letter of the lord Pope, and invited him to adopt the Catholic faith....  But he had grown too old in idolatry."

Friar John has the honor of being the first Catholic priest to set foot in Peking, indeed the first to step on Chinese soil, so far as we know.  Marco Polo had departed only two or three years previously from this city of Peking, and the Yuan dynasty was still more or less in its heyday.

The first obstacle he encountered were accusations brought against him by the Nestorians (there were about 30,000 in China at the time) that he was a spy, a magician, an impostor.  That went on for five years.  "At last, By God’s Providence, through the confessions of some individuals, the emperor came to know my innocence and the malice of my rivals, and sent them with their wives into exile."  Fortune now seemed to smile on him, at least for the moment.

"I ... was alone on this pilgrimage ... for eleven years until Brother Arnold ... of Cologne came to me last year.  I have built a church in the city of Peking ....  And this I completed six years ago; and I also made a bell tower there, and put three bells on it.  I have also baptised there, as I reckon, up to this time about six thousand persons."  And, had the troubles with the Nestorians not been so long, "I should have baptised more than thirty thousand."  What he does not tell us is that, while his church was being built, the Nestorians attempted sabotage every night on what had been accomplished during the day.

"I have bought one after another forty boys, the sons of pagans, aged between seven and eleven years, who up to that time had never learned any religion.  I have baptised them and taught them Greek and Latin, and our ritual; and I have written for them thirty Psalters with hymnaries and two breviaries with which eleven boys now know our office ... and take their weekly turn of duty ... whether I am present or not.  ...  And the lord emperor is greatly delighted at their chanting.  I strike the bells at the canonical hours, and with the congregation of babes and sucklings I perform divine service, but we sing by ear, because we have no service-book with music."

Friar John even managed to build a second church about two and a half miles across the city of Peking.  "I have divided the boys and placed part in the first church and part ... in the second; and they perform service by themselves.  But, I, as chaplain, celebrate in either church by weeks, for the boys are not priests."

Word of Friar John’s last letter of 1306 was brought to the French Pope, Clement V, at Avignon by a Franciscan called Thomas of Tolentino, later to be martyred in India.  Thomas probably collected the actual letter, or a transcript in Persia.  He seems, however, to have had even more information about Friar John’s work in Peking than the letter itself contained.  The story of that heroic struggle in China, told by him in the papal court in Avignon, was sufficient to induce the opinion there that the East was ripe for the Christian conquest.  Clement at once named Friar John the first archbishop of Peking and dispatched seven bishops towards China to consecrate him.  Later, probably in 1308, three of the bishops only reached Peking.  They brought with them the papal bull appointing Friar John: "... Taking ... into very careful consideration your conspicuous diligence in this holy work, We choose you ... to be Archbishop in the great and honorable city of Khanbalig (Peking) in the realm of the magnificent prince the great king of the Tartars ... committing to you the full charge and care of all the souls living in the whole dominion of the Tartars...."

For the remaining twenty years of his struggle in Peking, Friar John is silent.  He writes no more letters to the West, or none have survived.  In 1328 he died at the age of eighty-one.  "This brother John the Archbishop", wrote a contemporary Dominican, "converted there (in Peking) many men to the law of Jesus Christ.

He was a man of very honest life, pleasing both to God and to the world, and stood high in the favor of the emperor...  To his funeral and his internment came a huge multitude of Christians and pagans, the pagans rending their mourning robes as the custom is.  And these Christians and pagans devoutly took pieces of the Archbishop funeral pall and revered them as relics ...  They still visit his grave with extreme devotion...."

The story of the Franciscan mission in Peking and in China at large had not long to run after the death of Archbishop John.  The whole soul-racking effort of the noble Franciscan vanished with a puff of Chinese dynasty breath; and, come the Ming dynasty in 1638, not even the wick of the lamp Friar John lit is there to trail a little Roman Christian smoke in the astringent Peking atmosphere.  (From Barbarians and Mandarins, Thirteen Centuries of Western Travellers in China, by N. Cameron, Oxford, Hong Kong, 1993, pp. 90-106.)

The Man from the West: Fr. Matteo Ricci S.J.

As the XVIth century was drawing toward its close and the august dynasty of the Ming had run more than two-thirds of its course, there came to China one of the most remarkable men of the age.  His name was Matteo Ricci and he was a Jesuit priest.  Of all the Europeans who attempted the task of understanding the Chinese and their civilisation he was the most talented, the most important.  Among all the Westerners who sojourned in China, he was the only one to whom the Chinese accorded unreservedly their respect as a scholar in their own language and literature.  To achieve that position, Matteo Ricci had to become in all relevant ways at least one-half Chinese himself.

Something between admiration and awe, or a mixture of both, is the natural result of reading the story of his career in China and his own voluminous writings from there.  During the later part of his stay in Peking it was with the same kind of respect that the Chinese themselves, literati and ministers of state, seem to have looked on this unique phenomenon in their midst.  The earning of their respect had taken Fr. Ricci the last twenty-seven years of his life.

Fr. Ricci was an Italian born in 1552 in Macerata, a town near the Adriatic coast, a few short miles from the famous shrine of Loreto.  At seven years old he joined the newly founded Jesuit school in Macerata, and at sixteen was sent to Rome where, contrary to his father’s wishes of legal studies, he continued his ecclesiastical studies in the famous Jesuit college.  The pioneering voyages made by St. Francis Xavier to India, Japan and other exotic lands had doubtless been recounted to the students, and Ricci probably knew that the Saint had died within sight of China in the same year as he himself was born.  St. Francis had written:  "Opposite to Japan lies China, an immense empire, enjoying profound peace, and which as the Portuguese merchants tell us, is superior to all Christian states in the practice of justice and equity.  The Chinese whom I have seen ... and whom I got to know, are white in colour ... are acute and eager to learn.  In intellect they are even superior to the Japanese...  Nothing leads me to suppose that there are Christians there."  To Ricci, words such as these must have read like an open invitation.

The conviction that his vocation lay in the Orient strengthened day by day as he studied under the Jesuits.  But it was quite another matter to be chosen for the Eastern missions.  At last, his name was chosen; he was twenty-five.

They sailed from Lisbon, down the African coast, around the Cape of Good Hope, up past Mozambique.  Ricci’s first stop was Goa, on the West coast of India.  Not yet a priest, he resumed his studies in theology, before finding himself a Latin and Greek schoolteacher at the famous St. Paul’s College.  After some time he was sent to Cochin where he was ordained priest.  Finally, in the spring of 1582, Fr. Valignano, his former Novice Master in Rome, now the Visitor for the Far East, called him in Macao.  He was thirty years of age.  The story of his life was just beginning.

Quite soon after his arrival in August 1582, the young Fr. Ricci was to discover that Macao, far from being the doorstep of the house of China, was rather the prison to which the Chinese, with considerable subtlety, had relegated those few ‘barbarians’ who were in some ways useful and in others a continual nuisance to the Celestial Empire.  One day Fr. Valignano gazing out of the window of the Jesuit College in Macao toward the continent of China "called out in a loud voice, and the most intimate affection of his heart, speaking to China:  ‘Oh, Rock, Rock, when wilt thou open, Rock?’"

Fr. Valignano’s ideas of converting the Chinese were much more subtle than his predecessors’ methods.  What he proposed was a kind of gentle cultural approach.  And it was in applying this idea that Fr. Ricci made his greatest contribution to Sino-Western relations and understanding, and his most important conversions.

The Providential door opening came in the summer of 1583 when the governor of a town called Chao-ch’ing, some distance west of Canton, having heard of Fr. Ruggieri’s mathematical skill invited him and even hinted that a plot of land might be available where Ruggieri could built a house.  So, early in September that year, Fathers Ricci and Ruggieri, two old friends, set out for China up the muddy river to Canton.  The ‘Rock’ of Valignano seemed to have opened a fraction, just enough to let them inside.  Before leaving Macao, they shaved their heads and beards and put on the rough, hooded cloaks of Chinese monks.

One of the most significant action of Fr. Ricci in Chao-ch’ing was the making of a world map.  He describes what happened in his own words:  "The Fathers had hung up in their hall a map of the whole world....  When the Chinese understood what it was, never having seen or imagined such a thing before, all the more serious-minded of them wanted to see it printed with Chinese characters so as to understand its contents better.  So, the Father (Ricci) who knew something of mathematics, having been a disciple of Clavius when in Rome, set about the task, helped by one of the literati, a friend of his; and before long they had a map of the whole world bigger than the one in the house...  It was the best and most useful work that could be done at that time to dispose the Chinese to give credit to the things of the Faith."

This strategy was the crux of the Jesuit approach to the East and it was well adapted to Chinese attitudes.  Expound and exhibit the marvels and attainments of Western science and technology, it went, make that sector of Western achievements respected by the ruling classes.  Then, like the pill in the spoonful of jam, slip in morsels of Christian faith, and they will respect these too.  Thus, Fr. Ricci used his extraordinary memory, his knowledge of mathematics, of astronomy, of clock-making, of music, of optics, of geography, as means to bring the true faith to this huge Empire.

In a brief sketch of his life, it would be foolish to attempt to detail all the events which occurred in the long haul before he reached Peking, the ultimate goal of all who go to China.

In the first twelve years of labour in the reluctant fields of China, he harvested a mere fifteen converts in Chao-ch’ing and another seventy-five in Shao-chou his next stop.  Meanwhile, he was mastering the Chinese language and became a scholar whose only equals were the Chinese literati themselves.

Nanch’ang, Nanking, Linch’ing, Tungchow, he was nearing his goal gradually.  After an unsuccessful short stay in Peking, he returned to the famous capital on January 28, 1601, in his forty-ninth year and in the eighteenth of his stay in China, to remain there for the remaining nine years of his life.  Unfortunately, he never saw the emperor Wan-li and very soon renounced the impracticable dream of converting him.  Nevertheless, during the remaining years, he was astonishingly successful.  At one time the reputation of the Jesuit mission was such that their house was the constant focus of visits from high officers of government and of scholars of wide renown.

In his last letter to Rome, dated February 1609, Ricci once more underlined the importance of sending to China men who were not only "good, but also men of talent, since we are dealing with a people both intelligent and learned"

By the following winter, prematurely aged, and very gray, he felt his strength flagging.  On May 3, 1610, he took to his bed to rest.  "On the sixth day of his fatal illness, he made a general confession of his whole life, and the father who attended him was so overcome by his lighthearted disposition, that he said he had never in his whole life experienced more spiritual joy than that which radiated from the gentility and the innocence of the soul of Fr. Ricci."  "I am leaving you on the threshold of an open door that leads to great reward, but only after labours endured and dangers encountered."  Toward the evening of the eleventh of May, 1610, sitting up in his bed, he closed his eyes "as if falling asleep....  Father Matteo Ricci was dead."

(Sources: Histoire universelle des Missions Catholiques, Paris, 1955, vol. 2, pp.; Barbarians and Mandarins, Thirteen Centuries of Western Travelers in China, by N. Cameron, Oxford, Hong Kong, 1993, pp. 149-194.)

The Salvation of a Soul

On Monday, November 6th 1989, a Society priest arrived in Singapore coming from New Zealand.  He said Mass daily for the group of the faithful, and also held Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament after Mass.  He was also asked to bless 7 homes and to enthrone the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

On Wednesday, November 8th, the priest went to a hospital to give the last rites to the mother of one of the group’s young men.  She was very ill and unconscious.  It was 11 am.

After administering Extreme Unction and after giving her the Papal Blessing in articulo mortis, the priest noticed that beside this lady there was a Chinese man lying in another bed who was obviously in a desperate condition.  He clearly had only a few more hours to live in this world.  He was probably in his late fifties.

The priest went to his side and said to him: "I am a Catholic priest.  Would you like to become a Catholic?  I am offering you life everlasting".  Then the priest asked him: "Do you believe in Jesus Christ and in the Holy Catholic Church?"  The poor man could not speak, so bad was his condition, but he pressed the priest’s hands twice, affirmatively.  After that he could answer no more questions.  He was dying of cancer.

At the end of the man’s bed was a notice carrying the man’s name, "Hong Kee Koh".  The faithful accompanying the priest told him that that name could only belong to a non-Catholic.

The priest then administered the sacrament of Baptism to the dying man, and the Sacrament of Confirmation and the Papal Blessing in articulo mortis.  So he became "Hong Kee Joseph Horace George Koh".  Mr. Koh died eight hours later.

The following day the priest was told that a few weeks previously, Mr. Koh had asked the nurses to bring a Catholic priest to him, because he wanted to become a Catholic.  However, the nurse did not do so.  Moreover, Mrs. Koh, a non-Catholic, did not want her husband to die a Catholic.  But "man proposes, God disposes".  Mr. Koh died as a son of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, by God’s infinite mercy.  Laudetur Jesus Christus.

Fr. Ruben Horacio Gentili
Madrid, 25th November, 1989


For the Missions of Asia: One Million Hail Marys Daily

    As An act of faith in the all powerful intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mediatrix of all Graces, and as a token of missionary charity towards the very great number of souls in Asia, 

    I wish to pledge ____ decades of the Rosary everyday  "For the Missions of Asia"

    I understand that I need not necessarily add extra prayers but that simply need to add that intention "For the Missions of Asia" to my usual daily prayers. 
Name: _____________________________________________ 
Send this form (or a copy) toFather Superior, Our Lady of Victories, 2 Canon Road, New Manila, Quezon City 1112, Philippines. 
The progress of this ongoing spiritual bouquet will be related in the future issues of the Missionary Letter.  As of May 1, 1998, around 250,000 Hail Marys are being said daily for this intention.  This letter will be sent free of charge to all those who pledge to pray "For the Missions of Asia".  (Those who attend Asian Mass centers can get their copy there.)

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