Today, December 17, is Pope Francis’s 86th birthday, and earlier today the Vatican announced that the 17th-century Jesuit Matteo Ricci has been declared “Venerable” by the Church. He is now two steps away from canonization (beatification is the next step). This declaration means that the “heroic virtue” of this famous missionary to China has been officially recognized by the Church.

America’s Gerard O’Connell reports:

In a meeting last May with a delegation from the University of Macerata, Pope Francis described Father Ricci as a “champion” of the “culture of dialogue.” He said, the Jesuit missionary is famed not only for his actions and his writings, but for being “a man of encounters, who went beyond being a foreigner and became a citizen of the world.”

Father Ricci began his missionary work in China in 1582 when he arrived in Macau, then a Portuguese colony. Moving to mainland China, where he adopted the Chinese style of life and became fluent in the Chinese language, he spent the remaining 27 years of his life in China.

Father Ricci made history in 1601 by becoming the first European to enter China’s Forbidden City in Peking (now Beijing); the Wanli Emperor of China’s Ming dynasty had invited him because of his knowledge of astronomy and calendrical science. Known as “Li Madou” to the Chinese, Father Ricci produced scholarly works in optics, astronomy, music, geography, geometry and numerous other fields.

This announcement is a far cry from how Ricci was once viewed by many in the hierarchy of his day. In a 1997 profile of the Church’s history in China, Charles Horner summarized the controversy:

Ricci and his colleagues in China came to be known within the Church as “accommodationists.” They were responsible for the translation of Chinese classics into Latin. They established sinology as a scholarly discipline, and dominated it throughout the seventeenth and most of the eighteenth centuries. They introduced the West’s advances in astronomy and mathematics to the Chinese. They believed that much of inherited Confucian wisdom and ritual was consistent with Catholic teaching, as they understood the two traditions. This belief was as much practical as theological, for they believed that the first order of evangelization in China was securing the respect of the vaunted Confucian intelligentsia.

Eventually, Rome cracked down on attempts to inculturate Catholicism in China, and the once-fruitful work of the mission failed as a result. Since the second Vatican Council, Ricci’s vision of inculturation is being embraced in the Church throughout the world.

Thank you for this gift, Pope Francis!

Venerable Matteo, pray for us!

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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