A Jesuit friend gave me his copy of Generation of Giants, by George H. Dunne, S.J., not long ago and told me that this history of the Jesuit mission in China in the 15th and 16th centuries reveals a particularly great hour in the saga of Jesuit history. Indeed it does; that much I really already knew. But in reading the book, I have come to see that the lives of the wonderful "friends in the Lord" who made up the Christian Church in China are more than an artifact to be cherished by Jesuits. They were witnesses to the meaning of our Christian mission to evangelize, now as much as ever.
At one point in the story, after the death of Matteo Ricci, the first great leader of the mission and a man of magnetic grace and genius (an Italian whose face now appears on a Chinese postage stamp), a rising Chinese bureaucrat launched a vicious crusade against the Jesuits in order to further his own political career. He succeeded in obtaining an imperial edict banning the Christians, and the modest inroads the mission had made into an acutely xenophobic land were destroyed. The Jesuits were sent packing, either into hiding with powerful Chinese friends or back to Macao, the Portuguese outpost on the southwest coast of China. They temporarily retrenched, determined to wait out the storm that Shen Ch'iieh had visited upon them, and they busied themselves studying the literature and languages of China.
At this nadir in the story I am moved to ask a question certain Jesuits seem to have had no trouble answering: Why? What exactly were they trying to do? What good would come of their toil? Weren't they fooling themselves? How could they possibly have presumed to think that they had anything to offer the Chinese, especially after they have been shown the door so rudely? They brought scientific and mathematical knowledge the Chinese considered useful, but apparently not useful enough. Why not head back to Europe and work on the myriad problems back home? Some of their brothers in Rome were asking the same questions, wondering why, after nearly two decades, the mission had so few baptisms to show for its trouble. Weren't Ricci and the others just wasting their time?
During my time with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps I often heard other volunteers, not wanting to be associated with anything that smacked of colonialism, adamantly rejecting the application of the term "missionary" to our undertaking. It is true that we were not sent to the inner-cities to "convert" the population. Our apostolates are in education, community organizing or social service. Jesuit volunteers have jobs to do, and 'propagate the Gospel" is not part of any job description. Many of us have the idea that we are to be of some modest use, that we would work to make the world a more "socially just" place. We had joined up with J.V.C. in order to accomplish something. There is a religious dimension to our desire for justice, to be sure, but most of us are deathly afraid to talk about it.
Unfortunately, after two years working at a Jesuit middle school for inner-city boys, I have to face some facts. I have not been able to generate measurable results. I have worked till I went home practically weeping with exhaustion and frustration; yet the poor are still with us. The chaotic, dangerous world in which our students have to grow up has not changed. I have made some dear friends along the way among my fellow volunteers, teachers and students, but I cannot list my "accomplishments." Perhaps my presence has changed lives for the better; perhaps not. There is no way to know. Why have I done it? What, after all, have I done?
Matteo Ricci and those who followed in his footsteps into the dangerous and mysterious depths of Ming China knew where to look for the answer. They looked to Christ, to the ministry--the "accomplishments"of Jesus. Ricci's mission was so purely Christian, and therefore so elusive, that it mystified the pious bean-counters looking for mass baptisms in 1600 and it confounds the politically correct looking to expose cultural imperialism today. Matteo Ricci's "mission" was to make friends. That was his apostolate, as, by the grace of God, it has been mine. Nothing was more important then; nothing is more important now; nothing could ever be more important, because the Gospel, I have come to see, is truly shared only among friends.
RICCI respected those he met so much that he wanted to know everything that they knew. He loved them enough to tell them that he knew something that was better than anything they had ever heard. Because he listened so carefully to them, Ricci's friends paid attention to him as he told them of the Lord in their own language. There, I think, is where the Christian call to mission and the ideal of social justice come together and, in fact, become one: in a conversation between friends. "I do not call you servants, because I have revealed to you everything that the Father has revealed to me. I call you friends." Jesus teaches us this: If you listen to everything that someone wants to tell you, no matter how painful or jarring it may be to hear, then, when you say, "God loves you," perhaps that person will actually believe you.