Saint Ignatius High School

The Forbidden Palace

In this week’s Lesson from Loyola Hall, Mr. Healey describes the importance of the relationship between the learner, the teacher and the world by reflecting on the life and legacy of the great Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, S.J.

Last Wednesday morning we had our first interdepartmental-group faculty meeting.  To say that I am not a fan of meetings is a gross understatement, but I love these group sessions, begun in the 2021-2022 school year under the guidance of Pat Gallagher ‘04, Assistant Principal for Faculty Formation.  A major reason is that I see these as a time to get together with people I really like, but never get a chance to see.  

My group last year consisted of Darren Keefe ’87 and Nick Restifo Hon. ’19 from Languages, newcomer Andrew Fuchs from Mathematics, and Pat’s better half Julianna Burrows from Fine Arts, and it was with a heavy heart that I read that the groups this year would change.  To my joy, the new group consists of Paul Prokop and Drew Vilinsky ’97 of Theology, Amy Carroll of College Counseling, Qiuhui Li of Languages, and Dan Bradesca ’88 of English, and although I will miss Cohort #1 I know that Cohort #2 will be a rewarding experience.  In fact, it already has been.

About midway through our group discussion someone mentioned the great Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, S.J., and the conversation went down a fantastic rabbit hole that - unlike when it happens in my classes - actually stayed on topic.  For those unfamiliar with Matteo Ricci, he was sent to China in 1582 where he immersed himself in Chinese culture, language, religion, philosophy, politics, and any other aspect of Chinese life that he thought would be important in his evangelization of the people of this incredibly rich society.

In preparation for our discussion we read an excerpt from the book Learning by Refraction: A Practitioner's Guide to 21st Century Ignatian Pedagogy, and the focus was on the relationship between the learner, the teacher and the world.  Ricci, by diving into the world of the Ming Dynasty, was an archetype of this aspect of Ignatian pedagogy: he made their world his world too.

The old Jesuit adage of taking students in through their door and leading them out your door is as old as Ignatian education, and despite his meager success in the number of converts Ricci remains the master of the technique.  So good were his teaching skills that he was the first European to be allowed to enter the Forbidden Palace, and for the purpose of “magically” enabling a clock which he had earlier offered as a gift to begin ticking again.  For those who decry “tricks” used by teachers to get their students’ attention there is no better rebuttal than Ricci’s astounding his audience by bringing the clock back to life.

As a follow-up to our meeting, Qiuhui shared with all of us some photos of her and a group of our students at the grave of Ricci in Beijing, China. Not only was this a great experience for those gathered around the tomb of this important Jesuit, but it bespoke the honor given to Ricci by the Emperor.  Before the burial of Ricci all foreigners who died in China were, by law, buried in Portuguese Macau, a sovereign European outpost on the southern coast of China.  Because of his contribution to Chinese culture, which included his classic apologetic text The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven which argued for the compatibility of Confucianism and Catholicism, Ricci was not only entombed in Beijing but a Buddhist temple was constructed at the site.

Ricci’s missionary approach - that of cultural immersion - became a model for all those who saw the necessity of meeting people on their own terms and not trying to impose a foreign culture upon them.  The work of Jesuit education - and what is Jesuit education if not evangelization - has not changed in the last four hundred years, and so Ricci is for us the same guide as he was for his contemporaries.  Our striving to build relationships with our students by relating to their world (and for me theirs is a world as foreign as the one encountered by Ricci) is a difficult but necessary task.  

Our students seem to inhabit some sort of Forbidden Palace of social media and life experiences foreign to those of us who meet in interdepartmental groups, and yet we strive to enter that palace and lead them out through our door.  Once that happens we can all, students and teachers, leave behind the Forbidden Palace as we together discover the true meaning of the Lord of Heaven.