VATICAN CITY — Approval for the beatification of the Italian Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, who ministered in China 500 years ago, depends to some degree on the Vatican’s relations with China.
“Part of the beatification depends on the political relations between China and the Vatican,” said Father Anton Witwer, the postulator of his cause.
“It’s possible to wait, even if all things are clear for a beatification, something like five years, to see if the political situation has changed and is more favorable for the cause,” he told EWTN News in a May 15 interview.
Jesuit Father Matteo Ricci was an expert in mathematics, cosmology and astronomy who helped spread the Gospel in China during the 16th century.
The Italian Jesuit was the first Westerner invited into the Forbidden City, the Chinese imperial palace where the emperor lived, and he produced the first map of China where Africa, Europe and America also appeared.
The process of naming him a saint involves several steps, beginning with his life being recognized as one of “heroic virtue,” before he can be beatified, which is the step before sainthood.
According to Father Witwer, the process began in 1985 in the Italian town of Macerata, but “it was only a historical opening, so it was not sufficient.”
“This is why we had to make a new process,” he added, referring to the one initiated on Jan. 24, 2010.
The German priest, who is the general postulator of the Society of Jesus, also explained some of the considerations that can impact the timing of Father Ricci’s beatification.
“First, a beatification has to help the local Church (in China) to sustain and grow faith, and if there is a political impediment, it is sometimes necessary to choose the just time,” Father Witwer said.
In fact, the Vatican asked Father Witwer to introduce the cause of Father Ricci’s lay collaborator, Xu Guanqi, because “for China, it would maybe be better if a European and a Chinese are beatified more or less together,” he explained.
“This would be better for China because it is easier to accept a Chinese 'Blessed' and not only a missionary working in China,” he added.
But according to the Jesuit postulator, Xu Guanqi’s beatification process is on hold since it was introduced in Shanghai, which is currently without a bishop.
The Italian Diocese of Macerata finished studying the case of Father Ricci on May 10, and it passed its findings to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
The congregation will now examine the case to decide whether or not to give the missionary, who spoke fluent Chinese and embraced the country’s culture and customs, the status of "heroic virtue."
The postulator pointed out that if the Vatican gives Father Ricci that status, it would mean “he lived virtuous of faith, obedience and poverty, more than the average Christian.”
The next step in eventually proclaiming him a saint would be to beatify him, making him Blessed Mateo Ricci. That step, among other things, will involve a miracle being attributed to his intercession and have it certified as miraculous by separate panels of medical doctors, cardinals and the Pope.
“We still have to wait for the beatification because we have to wait for a miracle, which we don’t have yet,” Father Witwer reported.
“The Diocese of Macerata will now bring documents to the congregation, and we will have to examine their canonical correctness,” said Father Witwer.
The postulator explained that the next step in determining whether Father Ricci lived a life of heroic virtue involves drafting a document of around 500 pages — known as a positio — that details the life, writings and virtues of the priest.
It will be directed by the relator of the saints' congregation, a “sort of thesis moderator, and then studied by historians, theologians and finally by cardinals,” said Father Witwer.
“Maybe in two years we can finish the positio; then several years will be needed to study it; and then a few more years may be needed before the beatification finally takes place.”