History of Asian Missions

A bimonthly missionary letter to foster prayers for Asia
No. 6

I - History of the Asian Missions - China Part 3 (last)
The Controversy of Rites
II - A Missionary Story
For the Missions of Asia: One Million Hail Marys Daily

I - History of the Asian Missions China - Part 3 (last)

Fr. Mateo Ricci died in 1610 in Peking.  His own methods of conquests, of penetration were treated as guiding principles by his successors.  He had been a great pioneer, point of convergence between East and West, the founder, the model.  His most daring plan had been the attempt to win the Emperor if not to Christianity at least to an explicit tolerant attitude.  But Ricci had lived when the Ming dynasty was crumbling, the Emperor an inert monster at the mercy of parasites, so that the plan during his own life proved impracticable.  It was for his successors to convert the successors of Wan Li.

Three years after Ricci’s burial, as a consequence of a serious mistake by the Board of Astronomers in forecasting the eclipse of 1610, the missionaries’ friend at court, Leo Li, obtained a decree ordering De Ursis to reform the calendar and to translate European astronomical books.  This task he undertook with the assistance of Paul Hsu, who continued to use his high office in the cause of Christianity.  The decree was violently opposed by the eunuchs and not until 1630, when Adam Schall von Bell, a German Jesuit skilled in astronomy, arrived at Peking was the work of revision seriously undertaken.

At the end of the XVIIth century, France having won the hegemony of continental Europe from Portugal and Spain, French Jesuits began to arrive in China  and for the next hundred years played a leading role at court.

They were entrusted with the mapping of China; when the Emperor K’ang Hsi fell ill of malaria, they administered a new drug, Jesuit’s bark or quinine, recently arrived from colleagues abroad.  Again, two of the French priests proved of great assistance to the Emperor in negotiations with the Russians, who, under Peter the Great, were expanding eastwards in quest of sables and gold.  Partly as a token of gratitude for arranging a suitable treaty, K’ang Hsi was persuaded in 1692 to take the momentous step of issuing an edict of toleration for the Christian religion.  The work which Ricci initiated had been brought to fulfillment.

The missionaries were pioneers not only in revealing Christ and bringing Western science to the Orient, but also in revealing China to Europe.  Here too, Ricci’s letters to his friends had been the prototype.

The Controversy of Rites

The unqualified welcome extended to Chinese thought and practices during the XVIIIth century was not, however, endorsed by the theologians of Europe.  While the missionaries at the court of K’ang Hsi were exerting greater influence than ever before, while the number of Chinese converts reached a total of 300,000, a further aspect of Ricci’s programme had aroused bitter controversy.

Ricci had used tact and gentleness when dealing with Oriental ways of thought, realising with profound sympathy, the difficulties which faced a Chinese confronted with a strange religion.  He had laid down that the mysteries of faith must be gradually unfold, otherwise irreparable shock and damage would be done to Chinese sensibility and natural pride.  Afterwards, when grace had worked its miracle, the heights and depth of faith could be revealed.  Moreover, after life-long study of Chinese practices he had decided that just as slavery had been tolerated in early Christian centuries until the time should be ripe for its abolition, converts might fulfill their two traditional duties, the veneration of Confucius and the dead members of their families.

As the China mission grew, Franciscans and Dominicans entered the country.  Their approach to evangelisation was rather different than the Jesuits.  When the Mendicants discovered that converts made by the Jesuits were allowed to honour Confucius and the tablets of the dead, they protested that a tainted form of Christianity had been introduced to China.  The Mendicants forbade their converts such concessions and complained to Rome, branding Jesuits methods of adaptation as protective mimicry.  Theologians of the Society rallied to the support of their missionaries.  For more than seventy years the controversy raged while Rome, seeing in the problem one of the most difficult and far-reaching that had ever faced the Church, delayed her decision.

Both parties accumulated evidence.  The Jesuits obtained from K’ang Hsi a written document which they believed would prove decisive.  In it the Emperor stated "Honours are paid to Confucius, not as a petition for favours, intelligence or high office but as to a Master, because of the magnificent moral teaching which he has left to posterity.  As for the ceremony in honour of dead ancestors, it originates in the desire to show filial piety.  This ceremony contains no request for help.  It is practiced only to show filial respect to the dead.  Souls of ancestors are not held to reside in the tablets; these are only symbols which serve to express gratitude and keep the dead in memory, as though they were actually present."

On their side, the Mendicants maintained that, despite all appeals to authority and tradition, in actual fact such honours as practiced by the majority of Chinese, were tainted with superstition.  Confucius they protested, was venerated not merely as a teacher, but as the highest of saints, a superhuman being, while most Chinese held that the souls of their ancestors were actually present in the tablets and feasted on the food offered to them.

It must be said that while they opposed themselves so vividly, not one of the missionaries ever thought to establish a kind of syncretism between the pagan religions and Christianity, such, unfortunately, as is being done after Vatican II, in the name of ecumenism.  However there were some practices not specifically religious which need to be studied in reference to the value given to them concretely in the society which practices them.

Missionaries were divided in the question of rites and beyond these in the difference of approaches: the tabula rasa (clean slate) method or the method of a certain adaptation.  Such a controversy could not be solved at the mission.  Rome at to intervene.  She did so the Roman way i.e. slowly and prudently.  Pope Benedict XIV (1741 - 1758) ended the dispute in two documents of 1742 and 1744, maintaining previous censures and reminding missionaries that their role was less to adapt at all cost than to convert.  In order for the situation to be totally clarified, it took a lot of time, the time for the popular mind to desacralize all of these rites.  This is precisely what was declared in the pontifical instruction of December 8, 1939.

The problem of rites has been one of the most difficult of the history of the missions since it involved the very notion of conversion and of the Western mold of dogmatic definitions, liturgical ceremonies, canonical laws and the hierarchy itself.

In 1773, after almost two centuries of work in China, during which 472 of its members, Chinese and European, built the Church on Ricci’s foundations, the Society of Jesus was suppressed.  The last remaining bulwark at Peking against outright persecution was broken, the lightning conductor removed.  In 1842, the Jesuits, resurrected in 1814, returned establishing their house in the ancestral village of Paul Hsu.  Superficial continuity hid a profound change however.  The privilege formerly won for Christianity by the virtue and wisdom of its missionaries had now been obtained by superior riffles and long-range guns.  China suffering several defeats had to Westernize to survive.

In 1916, a group of missionaries sailed to China from Ireland, as the pioneers of a newly founded congregation, the Columban Fathers whose original goal was the very conversion of the Middle Kingdom.  Very few years later, unfortunately, China closed her gates again to foreign missionaries who were all expelled, unless they went underground and prepared themselves for martyrdom.  The story of Catholicism in China of the XXth century echoes the stories of the first centuries of the Church: an era of heroes, of martyrs.  The history of "The Adorers of the Cross" is being repeated.  China to this day has once again become an almost inaccessible Cathay.  "China will be converted" said St Dominic Savio.  So be it.

(Sources: The Wise Man from the West, V. Cronin, Fontana, 1961, pp. 262-274;  Histoire Universelle de Missions Catholiques, Paris, 1957,  vol. 2, pp. 323-352)

II - A Missionary Story

Among the day pupils of Saint Mary’s vocational school in Hindoustan, some years ago, was a little pagan called Mariappen.  By a special grace of Divine Providence, this child had kept his innocence, a rare feat among young idolaters whose morals aren’t their parents first concern.  He was soon attracted by the virtue of our best students and became their friend.  Knowing that "he who saves the soul of his brother saves his own", these boys had a supernatural zeal for the conversion of their new pagan friend.  Thus they resolved to bring this soul to God.  In their conversations, they would speak of religion, of the necessity of being a Christian to be saved, showing at the same time the vanity of pagan superstitions.  The seed did not wait to grow.

Our young pagan expressed the desire to join the catechism classes with the Catholic children.  He did such great progress that soon he was among the best at the exams.  Meanwhile, his friends were continuously lending him books about Catholicism.

A few months later, Mariappen came to see me and asked for baptism.  "Father, baptize me so that I become a child of God and that I may receive Jesus in my heart."  "My poor child, you are not even major; unless you obtain the consent of your parents, you will have to wait until you’re eighteen."

The parents’ answer was obvious: their deep affection for their child would have granted his request had they not feared retaliations from the caste, the cast, conversion’s great obstacle in India.  The cast forms a family, a circle breakable only at the direst cost.  To lose one’s cast, is to lose one’s social rank, any hopes for the future, the right to the father’s heritage, the ties with one’s family: father, mother, brothers, sisters.  No one knows you anymore; you become a unwanted stranger and if you ever arrived at the home’s doorstep, you would be forbidden to enter; if by compassion they give you some food, you will have to eat it outside because you are soiled, you have become a pariah.

It is not surprising then that Mariappen was sharply denied his petition.  He was despairing.  I tried to comfort him saying that if ever he was in danger of death, I would baptize him.

From that day onward, he refused to wear any pagan sign and to go to the temple of idols.  Every Sunday and feast day, he came to the Holy Mass in our chapel, praying with an angelic fervour.  Many times, he reiterated his prayer to his parents but they remained inflexible.

The feast of the Sacred Heart was always celebrated with great solemnity and the chapel was ornate to its best.  One year, after the ceremony, I found Mariappen in tears.  "Why do you cry, my child?"  "Father, I have just assisted at the Holy Mass; all my comrades had the happiness of receiving Communion and I, I alone, was not able to receive this God I love so much ...  Jesus is in their heart ...  and my heart is empty!" he ended, sobbing.

"My child, don’t lose courage, trust in the Blessed Virgin who has never abandoned those who have recourse to Her.  You will not pray to Her in vain.  The day will come when the saving water will flow on your forehead and your Beloved Saviour will come in your heart."

The cycle of studies having arrived, Mariappen successfully passed his exams.  At that moment, his fatal illness had already showed its first symptoms.  The doctor diagnosed the tuberculosis of the intestines and suggested to send the patient to the Sanitarium of Manamadurai, 300 km away.  This was done and I remained without news for a few months.

One morning, as I was leaving the chapel, I saw a little car parked in front of the orphanage; beside it, a man whom I immediately recognized as the father of Mariappen.  "My son is dying", he said, "and he begged me for the grace to bring him to you: he wants to die in your arms." I understood ...  I got nearer to the car and looked inside.  What a sad spectacle!  Could that skeleton with terribly swollen feet, be Mariappen?  His life held on to a faint breath.  When he heard my voice, his face lit up but he didn’t even have the strength to open his eyes.  I had him brought to the Catholic hospital, next to the industrial school.

As I was finishing my lunch, the superior of the Sisters informed me that the child was at his worst.  He wanted baptism but wanted that his father consent to it.  I threw a glance at the picture of St Thérèse and ran to the hospital.  The first person I met was the dying child’s father.  "You know that your son is going to die?"  "Alas! yes, Father"  "Well, do you want to make him happy forever?"  "How, Father?"  "By making him a Christian."  "Father," he said, "my child is yours because he wanted to die near you.  Do whatever you want."  I went to the young patient and told him the news.  "Tell my father to come here."  And as the sobbing man repeated what he had told me, three times Mariappen repeated these words: "How happy I am!"  Then, seeking with difficulty the hand of his father, he put it in my hand: "Promise me that you, my mother, my brothers and my sisters, all of you will become Christians."  And the father promised solemnly.

Religion had had no more secrets for Mariappen for a long time already.  It was very easy to instruct him.  "My child, I am going to baptize you; then I will bring the Holy Viaticum and, at last, you will have the happiness to receive this Jesus that you have desired so much."

Filled with joy, I went to fetch the Blessed Sacrament, and at 5 p.m., in a scene which must have delighted the Heavenly Court, Jesus satisfied the desires of this soul so well prepared.  What was Mariappen’s thanksgiving?  The Divine Master alone knows it, but the joy visible in his face betrayed a part of the truth, it seemed that an angel had come down on earth.

This thanksgiving continued until the hour of death which came at 4 a.m. the following morning.  The dying edified all those who got near him; until his last minute, he kept his lucidity, moving all the bystanders to tears by his acts of love of God.  What a beautiful moment it must have been when dressed in his baptismal innocence, this soul saw face to face the God so much loved and so much longed for!  Once again, the Virgin Mary had covered with her saving mantle one who trusted in Her.

The neophyte’s funerals were as solemn as possible.  All the personnel of the Institute insisted to accompany him to his last dwelling.  But a special favour, he was to be buried in the graveyard of the Cathedral.  A procession was formed, filling the whole width of the street.  In two ranks,  his classmates proceeded, recollected, with palms in their hands, singing hymns and praying.  Behind the hearse, the father was saying: "They are burying my son like a Rajah!"  When the cortege went through Sanards’ street, his family reproached him to have let his son become a Christian, embraced this "villain" religion.  The man replied: "Villain religion, I don’t know, but what I know is that it has more respect for the dead than you do!"

In the shadow of the Eucharistic Saviour whom he loved so much, Mariappen is awaiting the day of the glorious resurrection.  From the height of heaven, he prays for his brethren still involved in idolatry.  And we love to attribute to his intercession the conversions which followed his in our Institute.

Fr. R. Michotte, Foreign Missions of Paris
(Annales de la Propagation de la Foi, Québec, Nov.-Dec. 1938, pp. 270-273.)

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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