Wednesday, April 08, 2015

From Portugal to China: The story of the Jesuit Mission

I am taking a church history class for seminary which required me to do a project of my own choice.  The one I chose involved readings from several books.  The primary source was:

Journey to the East, The Jesuit Mission to China, 1579 - 1724, by Liam Matthew Brockey

Since I am also active in a Chinese church here in California, there was much relevant to the story for me.

There are a number of things that stood in this that reminds me of my life among the Chinese.  For example, the Chinese are one of the most superstitious people on the planet.  This was in many ways to the advantage of the Jesuits, since the superstitions of the Chinese were in many ways just replaced with Catholic superstitions:  Rosaries, veronicas, relics, and the like.  The chant of the Buddhist priest was replaced with a Latin mass.  Yet somewhere in the clutter of Popery and Mariolatry they seem to have found room to also teach about Jesus and what he did for us on the cross.

The Chinese government today doesn't like large, organized religion operating out from under the thumb of the bureaucracy.  The same was true during both the Ming and Qing dynasties, so that organizing small house groups was the norm.  Then there was the complaint of the Jesuits that the Chinese parents would pressure their kids to do their secular academic lessons, while neglecting the spiritual ones.  That I find the most amusing, since the same principle applies today.

The Jesuits were renowned for their education and spent much time decoding Chinese and studying classic Chinese works for their apologetics work.  Something curious in Brockey's account is that they spent all their time on Confucianism and almost none on Daoism and Buddhism, even though these two religions were all over the landscape.  There is another work I read recently on Buddhism in China that gave an extreme recommendation of the opposite sort:  That Christian missionaries should know as much as possible about Buddhism to the point that they would master Sanskrit to become familiar with the original works.  The observation I have in this is that, although Buddhism is common in China, the Chinese are almost entirely ignorant of the religion and view it more as an extension of their superstitions.  Thus, it would have been completely unnecessary for the Jesuits to have spent time on Buddhism, but Confucianism did effect the culture to the core.

A last surprising bit for me was to learn that half of the Jesuit missionaries died on the voyage from Portugal to China.  Things were rough then.  Brockey pointed to this journey as a key part of their formation as priests, since they were compelled to minister to the sick and dying through the voyage.  During storms they had to offer prayers and comfort the panicking.  Words of wisdom had to be communicated in spite of every language barrier imaginable.  Sermons needed to be prepared and delivered to the most hostile of the crew, and something had to be said for the dead as they were being committed to the waves.  This book definitely deserves a thumbs up.


Rummuser said...

Indians are highly superstitious too. Jesuits here have been a powerful influence on our education as have their counterparts Religious of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The latter have become generic for English medium schools and you will find matrimonial advertisements proudly claiming the girl to be convented!

Max Coutinho said...

Hi Looney,

The Jesuits were expelled from Portugal after the Great Earthquake of 1755 - they were viewed as a corrupt and greedy bunch by our then PM, Marquis of Pombal (who convinced the King that the earthquake had been a punishment for the Jesuits' greed and persecution of the Jews). They are still known for being sneaky little...monks. Isn't the present Pope a Jesuit?


Looney said...

Rummuser, I should very much like to see such an advertisement here in the US. Although I suspect it would be quickly prosecuted as a hate crime!

Looney said...

Hello Max,

Thanks for that bit. My church history books referred to the Jesuits as the "Pope's Shock Troops". I have a nephew off in a Jesuit college doing graduate school. This seems pretty mild, although he likes theology.