Matteo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit, is an exceptional figure in the history of Christian mission, one of the first Westerners to win entry into the closed society of sixteenth-century China. Having mastered the Chinese language and the Confucian literary classics, he transcended his status as a foreigner and won recognition from the literati and the imperial court as a scholar of high distinction.
Ricci believed that before Christianity could make progress in China it must win acceptance by the educated elite, eschewing any taint of foreign imperialism and presenting itself in terms of Chinese culture. In his mind the work of assimilating Confucianism with Christianity was no different from what Aquinas had accomplished with Aristotle. Unconcerned with the number of conversions, he was laying the foundation for future mission. At the time of his death, his body lay in state with hundreds of mandarins joining Christians in paying their respects.
The work of Ricci and the Jesuits who followed showed great promise of establishing an authentically Chinese Christianity. Unfortunately, their project was stillborn. Within a hundred years his approach was condemned by the Vatican, which utterly rejected any efforts to reconcile the Gospel with such Confucian practices as veneration of ancestors. It was a fateful decision; it would be centuries before Christianity made significant inroads in China. Ricci’s cause for canonization is currently in process.
“Those who adore heaven instead of the Lord of heaven are like a man who, desiring to pay the emperor homage, prostrates himself before the imperial palace and venerates its beauty.”
—Servant of God Matteo Ricci