From its earliest days the Society of Jesus has had a special ministry to those around the world who have not yet been evangelized. As opposed to the military approach of the European powers in the 16th Century and beyond, the Jesuits chose to take the two-laned path of enculturation and inculturation. The former involves the assimilation of the missionary to the culture to be evangelized; while the latter attempts to put the religious language of the missionary into the terms already known by the indiginous population. Outside of the context of European missionary activity this practice was at best tolerated and at worst forbidden by those in secular and ecclesiastical authority.
During this year’s celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month it is good to remember the efforts of those Jesuit missionaries whose vision far outreached that of their superiors as they tried to bring the Gospel to the ancient and highly developed cultures of Asia. Certainly St. Francis Xavier, the Patron Saint of Foreign Missions, had a key and foundational role to play in this evangelization, but the name that stands out when focusing on en/inculturation is Servant of God Matteo Ricci, S.J.
As a young teacher I received the book The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci from Tim Keo ’88 as an end of the year gift. It is an excellent history of the life and work of Ricci as he immersed himself in the culture of the Ming Dynasty as a way of bringing all of China to Christ. As we know from modern history - including the recent arrest of Cardinal Joseph Zen, Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong - the grand plan of Ricci has yet to be completed. Yet, people like Ricci have set the standard for how to evangelize those with whom it seems you have nothing in common, and considering the state of the relationship between the Church and American culture today, it appears that we can learn a lot from this brilliant Jesuit.
What Ricci did was look closely at the elite of Chinese society to see how he should dress and act, as well as what he should study and focus his efforts on. This foray into enculturation saw him dress as the learned scholars of China dressed, and he learned to read and write Classical Chinese - the language of the intelligentsia. These efforts, along with his belief that Confucianism was a philosophy-religion that he could build on, gave him common ground with those to whom he was commissioned to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Translating the concepts of Christianity to a Chinese audience had numerous difficulties, but there was one instance where there was a perfect match between the Christian and Chinese vision: John the Evangelist and Lao Tzu.
“In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through Him, and without Him nothing came to be.” [Jn. 1:1-3].
“All things rise from the Tao. By the power of the Tao they are nourished, developed, cared for, sheltered, comforted, grown, and protected.” [Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching]
The Logos is the Tao. Christ is the eternal Logos, and thus - as the title of the great work by Hieromonk Damascene states - Christ is the eternal Tao. Just as the Greek term Logos enabled St. John to dialogue with the highly advanced Greek culture, so did the Chinese term Tao enable Ricci to converse with the highly advanced Chinese culture.
Asia today, other than the Philippines and East Timor, has very little Catholic presence. Had Matteo Ricci and his companions been allowed to continue in their approach then the world would be a very different place today. All of the gifts that Asian cultures like China have bestowed upon the human race - both before and after the time of Ricci - would today be at the service of Christ and His Church.
At Saint Ignatius the vision of Matteo Ricci - a vision of enculturation and inculturation, a vision of Logos and Tao - thrives, and the gifts of the Asian and Pacific American members of our family are essential to our Catholic mission. Under the leadership of our President Fr. Raymond Guiao, S.J. ’82, a proud member of Cleveland’s thriving Filipino American community, we continue our quest to make Ricci’s dream a reality. The union of Tao and Logos is present not only in theology classes and through the tremendous efforts of Ms. Qiuhui Li in our Chinese language program, but in our approach to all that we do. As Lao Tzu might say, this orientation is “the essence of the Tao.”