Father Matteo Ricci and His Mission to China

Book Pick: The Wise Man From the West



By Vincent Cronin

Ignatius Press, 2016  

283 pages, $17.95

To order: ignatius.com or (800) 651-1531


China holds a certain fascination for Westerners: Modern transportation notwithstanding, it remains in its own way remote, closed and impenetrable. China is the world’s most populous country, but the least infused by Christianity.

That story might have been different had the Church cultivated the seed planted by the Jesuit missionary, and Servant of God, Father Matteo Ricci (1552-1610).

Vincent Cronin’s historical biography of the founder of the Chinese missions was first published in 1955 but remains as relevant — even more so — today, as China selectively opens to the outside.

Apart from the historical interest, Cronin is a great writer who keeps his story moving, and does it with appealing style. Kudos to Ignatius Press for the reprint! (One flaw: Transliteration of Chinese place names has changed since 1955, e.g., Peking is Beijing, and Canton is Guangzhou. The book needs a conversions table so modern readers can trace Father Ricci’s whereabouts. A contemporary map would have helped, too).

The Church’s great missionary enterprises of the 16th and 17th centuries in Asia and the Americas (and later, Africa) were marred by two factors: being too closely associated with “Christian” imperialist powers whose actions were often antithetical to the Gospel they professed and too facilely conflating the context of Christian teaching with the Latin cultural packaging it came in.

Father Ricci knew that if Catholicism would succeed in China, it would have to be grafted slowly and patiently onto Chinese culture.

“In China Christianity was for the first time in history confronted with a civilization older and at least as great as the Graeco-Roman, with a population far more numerous than that of Europe. Christianity could not conquer here by force of arms, numbers, or superior intelligence. Abandoning an age-old exclusive provincialism, she must recognize and tolerate all that was best in the older civilization, and introduce only her essential message: her revelation and theology. If she attempted to impose unessentials — philosophic, literary, artistic, or ritual — or to cut Chinese civilization to Western patterns, she would remain an exotic tied to Occidental methodology and customs which would make her unacceptable to the Chinese mind. The Church, in order to show herself truly universal, in order to sail the Chinese sea, must jettison all local and national prejudice, even her age-old habits of mind, and take on a cargo of Eastern wisdom compatible with her message, without deviating one point from her essential course.”

For 27 years, Matteo Ricci tried to do that, distinguishing between wine and wineskins, pouring the fruit of the vine into new and compatible Chinese casks, while keeping it out of containers that would corrupt it. Cronin details that long and arduous task, its ups and downs, progress and setbacks, as the Church painstakingly found its foothold in China.

That foothold did not last. As other religious orders less sensitive to cultural adaptation arrived, they attacked what the Jesuits had done. In the “Chinese Rites controversy,” a post-Tridentine, centralizing and Eurocentric Rome essentially overturned what Father Ricci had laboriously achieved.

Catholicism went on, but it always remained peripheral: In the mid-20th century, although “China counted 2,500 native clergy and three million Catholics, the second figure represented considerably less than one percent of the population. Most damaging of all, at every turn, the ideals of Christianity were refuted by the Western treatment of China.” China instead adopted a different Western religion — Marxism — whose adherents keep other Occidental faiths on a short leash.

Chinese Catholicism remains a lively question today, but the weight of centuries still influences this people. How we got to where we are is Father Ricci’s bittersweet story — one Cronin tells so well, one worth your read.



John M. Grondelski, Ph.D., writes from Falls Church, Virginia.