Hungarian Conservative

How Jesuit Missionaries Sought to Christianize the World

Painting of Saint Francis Xavier, held in the Kobe City Museum, Japan
Painting of Saint Francis Xavier, held in the Kobe City Museum, Japan
Wikipedia
In the 16th century, the Jesuits took control of the higher education in Europe to properly instruct laymen not just in the tenets of the faith, but in other utilitarian subjects, such as mathematics and astronomy. Aligning with absolute monarchs who only sought to enrich their fiefdoms through colonization, the Jesuits, like St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552) and Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) expressed and lived out their voluntarist ideal by undertaking some of the most inconceivable missionary endeavors.

There is an old sarcastic account, at least within the religious and clerical world, of a Franciscan monk, a Dominican friar, and a Jesuit priest who are all within the same room. The one and only lightbulb which renders light all suddenly burns out, thus leaving the three in the dark. The Franciscan takes advantage of the situation to speak on how this want represents the poverty of Christ; the Dominican responds by saying they should contemplate the divine light of heaven penetrating and irradiating the darkness of sin, mirroring the shining star that guided the wise men to the Christ child; the Jesuit simply changes the lightbulb. 

The members of the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuit Order or the Jesuits, were founded in 1540 by a former soldier, St. Ignatius of Loyola.

St Ignatius of Loyola by Peter Paul Rubens (c. 1600–1622) SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons

At that time of their founding, Christendom was divided. Martin Luther, in his protest against the various corruptions of members of the clergy and religious orders, rebelled and induced others to separate themselves from institutional Catholic Church, hence being labeled with the eponym Protestants. There was, also, a divorce between idealism and society on the part of Catholics. ‘Just as celibacy of the clergy’, the Spanish Jesuit Baltasar Gracián (1601–1658) says, ‘meant that the next generation was to be deprived of the hereditary influence of some of the purest spirits of the time, so the opposition of Christianity to the world has brought it about that the world has been un-Christian’.[1]

Thus, in order to bridge this chasm,

the Jesuits employed their idée mère, i.e., their guiding principle of pragmatism so as ‘to make the world Christian by Christians becoming worldly’.[2] 

As delineated by Gracián, the Jesuits learnt and taught others how to be all things to all men, vis-à-vis ‘learned with the learned, saintly with the saintly…gain[ing] every one’s suffrages’.  It was indispensable, adds Gracián, to [n]otice men’s moods and adapt…to each, genial or serious as the case may be’, though this requires an ‘universal genius in his knowledge and universal ingenuity in his wit’.[3] This required, according to Gracian, knowing how to play the card of truth:

‘great skill is needed here: the most expert doctors of the sol pay great attention to the means of sweeting the pill of truth. For when it deals tithe destroying of illusion it is the quintessence of bitterness. A pleasant manner has here an opportunity for a display of skill; with the same truth it can flatter one and fell [sic] another to the ground. Matters of today should be treated as if they were long past. For those who can understand a world is sufficient and if it does not suffice, it is a case of silence. Princes mush not be cured with bitter draughts; it is therefore desirable in their case to gild the pill of disillusion.’[4]

The Jesuits thus took control of the higher education in Europe to properly instruct laymen not just in the tenets of the faith, but in other utilitarian subjects, such as mathematics and astronomy. Aligning with absolute monarchs who only sought to enrich their fiefdoms through colonization, the Jesuits, like St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552) and Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) expressed and lived out their voluntarist ideal by undertaking some of the most inconceivable missionary endeavors.

Xavier went to far as to the islands of the Malay Peninsula and Japan, adapting to local customs, thus enabling him to reach more converts. Ricci, who believed Christianity could grow in China alongside Confucianism and Buddhism, made the apt analogy of the early Christian Church and classical Greek philosophy, as St. Thomas Aquinas had done with Aristotle in order to explain the Catholic faith in his notable Summa Theologiæ.

The sense of Jesuit practicality meant that priests like Ricci or his German colleague Johann Schreck (1576-1630) brought them to both dress as the locals did and to invest their time in embedding themselves in the arts and crafts of the latter. In China, seeing that there was a focus from the emperor on establishing a calendar and predicting the weather and anomalies, they too immersed themselves in the sciences and philosophies of the Chinese in order to be credible evangelizers of Christ’s teachings.

This approach was initially not shared by the European church. Despite Ricci’s insistence that the Catholicism would have much more success if it would ordain Chinese men to the priesthood, only Europeans were admitted to holy orders, relegating Chinese to subservient status. In fact, the native Chinese would have had to wait until the early twentieth century in order to become priests. This, together with the ‘rites controversy’ of the eighteenth century, which permitted for the acceptance of Confucianism alongside Catholicism, kept the Catholic Church in China from making ever serious inroads into the literate class, let alone the populous as a whole.

Historically, whenever the Jesuits did not apply their idée mère of pragmatism, one saw nothing but absolute chaos, as with the mission to Ethiopia by the Portuguese Jesuit Alfonso Mendes (1579–1659). As Superior General in 1553, St. Ignatius had erected the Province of Ethiopia, to which he assigned fifteen Jesuits with one memorable recommendation: ‘Proceed with gentleness…Tolerate what you can, unless prejudicial to the faith…Maintain a reputation as men of learning and piety, but without losing your humility…At the right time try to found a university or institute of general studies…’[5]

This the Jesuits have done, specifically with Pedro Paez, who learned the local tongues of Amharic and Ge’ez. He thus drew the attention of the Ethiopians by his skills—not just as a dignified churchman, but as an architect, a mason, and a carpenter. Mendes, instead of adapting to the mores of Ethiopia, decided to latinize the locals by forcing them to get re-baptised and have their churches reconsecrated in the Latin rite. This led to the banishment of Catholicism in Ethiopia for nearly two centuries.[6]

Last month in Rome at the Pontifical Urbaniana University the

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin offered an apology saying that Western missionaries had made ‘errors’ in past centuries in their zeal to convert the Chinese faithful to Catholicism.

He did so in the presence of Bishop Joseph Shen Bin of Shanghai, whom Pope Francis in July was forced to recognize his unilateral appointment by the Chinese Communist Party—in 2018 the Holy See made a provisional agreement with China with the hope of ‘reconciling…to the full communion of all Chinese Catholics,’ in particular, the Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA), that is, the clergy and the faithful of the state church. In essence, it forced the Catholics of the Underground Churchthose who maintained their obedience to Rome after the communist takeover—to either join the CPA or fend for themselves.

Many continue to be arrested for their refusal to join the church instituted by Beijing, in addition, as part of the policy to Sinicize the Christian population, Beijing has even gone so far as to print versions of the Bible for government-run schools that distort gospel narratives, such as that of Jesus forgiving the adulteress woman as accounted in the Gospel of John. In the Sinicized account of the episode, Jesus instead stones her, saying:

‘I too am a sinner. But if the law could only be executed by men without blemish, the law would be dead.’

Speaking through an interpreter, Shen said the Catholic Church today must have a Chinese point of view, respect Chinese culture, and develop alongside Chinese society. All things being equal, it seems far-fetched that this is what the aforementioned Jesuit missionaries in China had in mind.


[1] Baltasar Gracian, The Art of World Wisdom, trans. Joseph Jacobs. London, McMillan and Co., Limited, 1925, xxxi.

[2] Gracian, The Art of World Wisdom

[3] Gracian, The Art of World Wisdom, 47.

[4] Gracian, The Art of World Wisdom, 126-127.

[5] Marcel Gareau, S.J., Making All Things New – Fifty Years of Jesuit Presence in Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, 1995, 9.

[6] Abba Abraham Buruk Woldegaber, O. Cist. and Mario Alexis Portella, Abyssinian Christianity: The First Christian Nation? – The History and the Identity of the Ethiopian and Eritrean Christians, Florence, BP Editing, 2012, 158-160

In the 16th century, the Jesuits took control of the higher education in Europe to properly instruct laymen not just in the tenets of the faith, but in other utilitarian subjects, such as mathematics and astronomy. Aligning with absolute monarchs who only sought to enrich their fiefdoms through colonization, the Jesuits, like St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552) and Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) expressed and lived out their voluntarist ideal by undertaking some of the most inconceivable missionary endeavors.

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