The three great pillars of Chinese Catholicism

Forwarded from
US-China Catholic Association
Fr. Michael, USCCA [email protected]
December 14, 2020

At this time in the Church’s year, we celebrate the memory of Leon LI Zhizao (1565–1630), Paul XÚ Guangqi, (1562–1633), and Michael YÁNG Tíngyún (1557–1627). These renowned scholar officials lived during the Ming Dynasty and became ardent champions of a new teaching brought to China by missionaries from the West, Christianity.

All three men were thoroughly trained in the Chinese classics. They were highly respected for their integrity. And they rose to high position in the Empire. Paul Xu eventually rose to the rank of Deputy Senior Grand Secretary, roughly equivalent to prime minister of the realm.

These men met the Jesuit Matteo Ricci and his companions, engaging with them in wide-ranging conversations about everything from mathematics and astronomy to ethics and spirituality.

In their encounter with the Gospel, they did not view Christianity as a foreign faith that posed a threat to Chinese culture – quite the opposite. Yang, Xu, and Li were men who had committed their lives to the traditions of their ancestors and the good governance of the realm. They saw Christianity as providing a sure foundation for their efforts, its capstone and guarantee. Why be virtuous? Because the world has a moral structure whose Lord is a benevolent redeemer of our broken inner and outer lives.

Many scholars have misunderstood this historical moment of encounter. Even the great Jonathan Spence has treated the mathematics, map making, and Western science brought by the Jesuits as mere strategic efforts to gain a hearing for Christianity, as if religion were some category set apart. Such a way of thinking of religion as set apart in its own sphere is thoroughly foreign to the Renaissance humanism of the early Jesuits, who saw God at work in the majesty of the cosmos, the order of mathematics, and the beauty of friendship.

At the core of Jesuit spirituality is the imperative of St. Ignatius: See God in all things! And so the Jesuits, for their part, also appreciated how God was at work in Chinese culture.

During this season of Hope, as we await the Prince of Peace, let pray that those hopeful conversations that took in everything from math to ethics to spirituality continue in our own day and in the generations to come.

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Also see this article by Jean Elizabeth Seah reprinted in the Hong Kong Sunday Examiner. 

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