Wherever they went, Jesuits embraced local ways

  • September 15, 2011

When Frs. Pierre Biard and Ennemond Massé arrived in Canada in 1611 their religious order was a relative infant. In 1611, the Jesuits had only been in existence 71 years, compared to the Benedictines who were more than 1,000 years old, or the Dominicans and Franciscans who were each about 400 years old.

But the Jesuits wasted no time in taking the Gospel to the frontiers. Just one year after the Society of Jesus was formally approved by Pope Paul III in 1540, St. Francis Xavier left for the far east. And by the time the Jesuits came to Canada, they had already established missions in the far east, Africa and Latin America.

St. Francis Xavier’s incredible success in India and Indonesia, heroic efforts in Japan and doomed attempt to reach China — all in the space of eight years — established a Jesuit pattern of absolute commitment to spreading the Gospel.

Christian missionary work has often been portrayed as a sort of ideological and cultural arm of European colonization — a means of conforming foreign cultures to a European standard so they may be more easily governed and exploited. But the Jesuit missions in the 16th and 17th centuries show something quite different.

By 1554, Fr. José de Anchieta was in Brazil establishing the village of Sao Vicente. When Portuguese military and colonial administrators started killing and enslaving native people to clear land for settlement and establish profitable plantations, Anchieta was on the side of the Indians. He did all he could to condemn the colonial policy and save aboriginal people.

Anchieta’s opposition to colonial authority in South America continued in the Jesuit reductions of Paraguay, beginning in 1609. Rather than trying to incorporate the indigenous people of Brazil and Paraguay into the economy and government of the colony as slaves, the Jesuits established these reductions — self-sufficient villages that would adopt Christianity but not European culture and would trade with the Portuguese and Spanish on an equal footing. This angered Portuguese authorities.

Even before the reductions were established, the Jesuits had developed a unique approach to missionary work in China. When Jesuit missionary Fr. Matteo Ricci reached China in 1582, following in Francis Xavier’s footsteps, he found an advanced civilization and culture. Converting the Chinese to Christ meant presenting Jesus in Chinese terms, with Chinese language and Chinese learning.

Ricci didn’t just learn the language, he dressed as a Chinese scholar-official and worked his way into the Ming emperor’s court. He said Mass in Chinese at a time just after the Council of Trent, when a standardized Latin Mass was being promoted world-wide.

In 1605 a Jesuit arrived in India and began wearing a dhoti and wooden sandals, with his head shaved except for a single tuft of hair. Jesuit missionary Fr. Roberto de Nobili preached Christianity in Sanskrit and Tamil and presented himself as an Indian guru.

The Jesuit approach, which saw the Christian message as something separate from European culture, was controversial. De Nobili was denounced to Pope Gregory XV, who eventually ruled in favour of most of the Jesuit’s adaptations to Indian culture. Ricci was opposed by other missionaries in China, who persuaded Pope Clement XI to condemn the Chinese practice of honouring ancestors as superstitious and incompatible with Christianity — a ruling that was reversed by Pope Pius XII in 1939. In Brazil and Paraguay the Portuguese waged war against the reductions and condemned the Jesuits at the Portuguese court in Lisbon.

The Jesuit effort to frame Christianity in terms of local culture was adopted by St. Jean de Bebeuf and his companions. They dreamed of a Christian kingdom of Wendat Hurons south of Georgian Bay, and were largely inspired by the Paraguay Reductions.

In our own era, the Jesuit approach to missionary work has continued to generate controversy among theologians. In 1974 the Jesuits officially adopted the idea of “inculturation.” This sometimes-controversial term means that Christ is already present in all cultures and the missionary’s job is to find an expression of Christian teaching that avoids imposition of a foreign culture on those who seek Christ in the Church. The Jesuits adoption of the term drew fire from some theologians who regarded it as an attempt to jettison the Christian philosophical and theological tradition based in pre-Christian Greek philosophy.

Defenders of inculturation responded that, although the term was new, its practice had been ongoing since the time of St. Paul. Efforts by the early disciples to reframe the Jewish and Middle-Eastern Christian movement into Hellenistic philosophical terms was an example of inculturation, they argued.

Pope John Paul II endorsed inculturation, using the term in an Apostolic Letter in 1979. Inculturation came up again in 1984 when the Pope declared to Canada’s native people “Your Amerindian and Inuit traditions permit the development of new ways of expressing the message of salvation and they help us to better understand to what point Jesus is the Saviour and how universal his salvation.”

In recent years, Pope Benedict XVI has preferred the term “interculturality” as a way of emphasizing the encounter between the culture of the Church with its roots in the Mediterranean and the cultures of the world.

Catholic Register


Jesuits in Canada - 400 years of Service - Catholic Register special front cover


Jesuits in Canada
400 Years of Service

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Wherever they went, Jesuits embraced local ways

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