03/ 7/2014 Gerald O'Connell - Rome
Cardinal Tong: China has honoured Matteo Ricci, now it is the Church’s turn to do so
In this exclusive interview, Cardinal Tong speaks about Matteo Ricci, the Italian Jesuit who introduced the West to China, and the possibility of his being honoured (declared blessed and eventually a saint) by Pope Francis, who appears to be following in his footsteps and could open a new chapter in Sino-Vatican relations.
The Chinese Cardinal John Tong Hon is happy that the Holy See is finally moving to honour Matteo Ricci, the famous Jesuit who went to China and died in Beijing in 1610, where he was buried, and where his tombstone can still be seen. He hopes that just as China has honoured Ricci in its own way more than a decade ago, so too Pope Francis will honor him in the Church’s way, by beatifying him, in the not too distant future.
“China has already honoured him at the Millenium Monument in Beijing”, Tong said. This was a reference to the fact that Ricci is one of only two foreigners (the other is Marco Polo) to be included in a long fresco in that monument celebrating the individuals who have made significant contributions to the progress of civilization in the ‘five thousand years’ of Chinese history. Ricci, the man who made the West known to China, is mentioned here as the pioneer of cultural exchanges.
“China has already honoured him, and now it is possible that the Pope too will honor him by declaring him a saint”, the cardinal told me in an exclusive interview during his recent visit to Rome for the Consistory to make new cardinals. Tong was referring to the fact that on 10 May 2013 the examination of the cause for the canonization of Matteo Ricci was concluded at the diocesan level in Macerata, Italy, where Ricci was born. After that, the entire dossier was taken to the Congregation of Saints in Rome where his cause is being examined now with a view to reaching a decision to declare him blessed (beatification), and eventually a saint (canonization).
The cardinal-bishop of Hong Kong thinks it would be “particularly appropriate” that Ricci be canonized by the first Jesuit pope in the history of the Catholic Church. “Our new Pope is a Jesuit and he’s really interested in China”, Tong said. “So too is his right hand man, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Secretary of State, who also loves China, and in a recent interview mentioned Matteo Ricci”, he added. Parolin was the Holy See’s point man on China for a number of years in the last decade when the two sides seemed to be moving close to an accord.
“I too have high respect for Ricci. I like his writings, particularly his booklet on “Friendship”, which I first read a long time ago”, Cardinal Tong said. “In that booklet one can see how he presents the Western idea of friendship, the Christian concept of friendship and the Chinese concept of friendship. He put all these three elements into one.”
He recalled that Ricci included Cicero’s ideas on friendship in that booklet, and explained that for this Latin writer and philosopher “Friendship is not to benefit oneself, not to be egoistic, rather it entails that you should also help the other person to become better, and finally contribute to society at large”.
Ricci also put the ideas about friendship found in Sacred Scripture into his famous booklet, the cardinal said. Indeed, he drew first from the Old Testament Book of I Samuel (chapters 19-20), which speak of the friendship between Jonathan and David, and he also drew on the New Testament, from St John’s Gospel (chapter 15) where Jesus links friendship to love when he says: “Greater love than this no man has than to lay down his life for his friends and “You are my friends if you love one another”.
Tong said Matteo Ricci also wrote about the Chinese concept of friendship in his master booklet on the subject. He recalled that when the Italian Jesuit entered China he developed friendship with the local officials, and they asked him to tell them how friendship is understood and lived in Western countries. In that booklet, Ricci explained that the Chinese vision of friendship requires one to be not egoistic or focused on material things (such as eating and drinking); he presented this Chinese understanding as close to that of Jonathan and David and said it included such elements as “having good friends in court”, knowing how to help other people, and how to build up the virtues.
Cardinal Tong recalled that 2,500 years ago Confucius taught three important aspects for good living in society which go in much the same direction as Ricci’s thinking. Confucius emphasized that a person should first take care of one’s family; secondly, one should help society to run well; and, thirdly, one should work to make peace in the whole world.
The cardinal recalled that Ricci’s dialogue with the Chinese people and officials was respected, and his writings were highly respected. He said it would be good to import Ricci’s ideas into our own day, and he thinks this can happen under Pope Francis who “has much in common with Ricci: he is a Jesuit and has that same love for China and its people as Ricci had”. And “he has a great love for the poor” too. Tong is convinced that Pope Francis, like Ricci, “can show friendship to the Chinese people” and he believes “that his ideas and friendship would likewise be appreciated and welcomed by the Chinese Government”.
He went onto draw attention to the fact that Francis has been Pope for almost one year, “and during all this time he’s had a positive press in China”. “That is quite remarkable!”, he stated.
Given all this, Cardinal Tong concluded by saying, “We hope that in the future the dialogue between China and the Holy See can be resumed and can lead to positive results for both sides”.
When we spoke, Pope Francis had not yet given the interview to the Italian daily, Corriere della Sera, which was published simultaneously in Argentina’s daily, La Nacion, on March 5, in which he revealed that he had sent a letter to the Chinese President Xi Jinping after his election, and that he had received a reply from him. In that interview, the Jesuit Pope said: “We are close to China. I sent a letter to President Xi Jingping when he was elected, three days after me. And he replied to me. Relations exist. They (the Chinese) are a great people. I love them”.
The Pope’s letter to the Chinese President would seem to confirm that he is indeed following in the footsteps of Matteo Ricci. Furthermore, the fact that the President replied to him, and that Francis has been given “a positive press” in the Chinese media over this past year, would appear to indicate that the Chinese authorities are appreciating this. It remains to be seen what happens next.