Conference on Inculturation of Church in China Kicks off in Nanchang

The conference on "Matteo Ricci and Nanchang: Inculturation of the Church in China"
The conference on "Matteo Ricci and Nanchang: Inculturation of the Church in China" (photo:
By Ruth WangMarch 30th, 2017

A two-day conference on "Matteo Ricci and Nanchang: Inculturation of the Church in China" began in Nanchang on the morning of March 28, 2017. Over 100 people, including people from religious and academic circles, as well as both Catholic and protestant clergy, attended the conference. Attendees shared research on the history of Matteo Ricci, one of the earliest Jesuit missionaries in China and how he tried to encourage localization. They also discussed the current inspirations of Chinese Christianity in localization.

The conference was co-hosted by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Nanchang, Hebei Faith Society for Cultural Studies, Globalization and Religious Studies Department of Fudan University, and the Xu-Ricci Dialogue Institute at Fudan University School of Philosophy.

Leaders from the United Work Front Department of the CPC Central Committee, National Administration for Religious Affairs, United Work Front Department of Jiangxi Province, and the Bureau for Ethnic and Religious Affairs also attended the conference. In addition to the clergy, scholars from 18 different universities and five research institutions in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, Italy, and the USA also attended.

All the priests from the Jiangxi Catholic Parish attended and offered prayers for the symposium in the morning. Bishop Li Suguang from the parish said in a speech during the opening ceremony, "The way Matteo Ricci and other Jesuit priests respected and appreciated the local culture 420 years ago right beside the local scholar-officials in Nanchang, lighted our way like an inspirational mirror of the history of Chinese churches in theology, etiquette, and evangelism."

Bishop Shen Bin, Executive Vice-President of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and Bishops Conference of the Catholic Church of China, reviewed Ricci's determination in spreading the Gospel and attempts at localization in his speech. "As a missionary in a new land, Ricci determined, as soon as he set foot in China, to live here till he died and not return to Italy." Ricci's work in China, including learning the culture and developing routes for evangelism during his early days, had significant meaning. "Matteo Ricci arrived in Nanchang in 1595 dressed like a Chinese. He was indeed an expert on China."

It is possible to learn from the respect Ricci had for Chinese culture and etiquette. "Matteo believed that the way Chinese scholars ran the country was similar to Utopia, and he earned the respect in turn of some prominent Chinese officials at the time. He said that the reason he came was to pray for the country and the emperor." At the same time, Ricci showed a high level of cultural awareness. "He preferred to examine things culturally, rather than just religiously."

Matteo Ricci's personal morals also set a good example to learn from. "People in Nanchang were amazed that he never lied. He felt that the foundation of preaching is for people to believe the preacher, and they could only do this if the preacher didn't lie. Otherwise, the people would doubt the word of missionaries. So preachers needed a high level of morality and ethics."

Bishop Shen Bin believed that many Chinese Catholics could learn from Ricci's way of evangelizing and thinking. There have been many studies on him that people could learn from. Also, discussions of Ricci are not simply theoretical; but, practical. His experiences are a precious resource for the development of today's churches.

In his speech, Cao Guoqing, Deputy Director of the United Work Front Department of Jiangxi and the Provincial Bureau for Ethnic and Religious Affairs, said "This symposium has significance for exploring the historical resources of Catholicism and promoting the localization and sinicization of Catholicism. Matteo Ricci learned and adapted to Chinese culture in Nanchang over the span of three years. His conflicts and communication with Emperor Jian'an and Confucian scholars helped him to develop a successful strategy for evangelism in Nanchang, suitable to Chinese society. We should absorb Chinese cultural resources, develop Chinese characteristics for Catholicism, motivate inner vitality, and relate more and more good stories about Catholicism."

Cao spoke highly of Ricci's contributions, saying, "In his three years in Nanchang, he studied Chinese culture, dressed in Chinese clothes, made many friends, used a Chinese name, and established a deep personal friendship with many dignitaries. He brought science while spreading the Gospel. He also translated Chinese books into Latin and sent them to Europe, setting up a bridge between Chinese and Western cultures. Finally, he developed a successful strategy for evangelism. His preaching methods of abiding by the laws and respecting tradition earned success."

Professor Fan Lizhu from the Globalization and Religious Studies Department of Fudan University said, "We can feel Matteo Ricci's value today through the rich legacy that he left. Ricci, who always wore Confucian raiment, was more than a missionary. He was a messenger of civilization. Religious and cultural exchanges are not always pleasant, and there can be conflicts. In commemoration of the herald of eastern and western cultural exchange, it is significant that we reorganize and re-examine the experiences of Matteo Ricci in cultural exchange four hundred years ago."

"There are tens of millions of Christians in China. It is anticipated that Chinese Christians will make contributions to the global theological and theoretical thought and practice in the process of localization and sinicization of churches. For example, in the south of Jiangxi, Catholicism fuses well with the local tradition of filial respect. This is the same as with the protestant churches in the Zhoukou area of Henan. We believe that the practice of Chinese churches will provide new theories for churches around the world and set an example for different religions and cultures through mutual respect and adaptation to diminish conflicts. We hope that scholars and churches will cooperate more in this. This is because the specific practices of the church actually have an impact beyond the local church."

Father Zhang Shijiang from the Hebei Faith Society of Cultural Studies said, "Matteo Ricci came to the ancient city of Nanchang 420 years ago. He sowed the seeds of the Gospel in dialogues from the Tengwang Pavilion to the White Deer Grotto Academy, and became a much-talked-of figure in eastern and western cultural exchange. The localization and sinicization of churches are the main topics of this symposium. Many outdated concepts urgently needs to be updated. The original development of Chinese churches was too western, and it failed to integrate into mainstream Chinese society from traditional culture. This is why it is still a 'foreign religion' hundreds of years later. We should remove the Jewish-Greek-Roman tradition and put in its place a new one of Jewish-Roman-Chinese cultural traditions. It is a long and arduous task to realize this inculturation of the church in China. Churches of different levels must all pay attention, face the challenges, overcome difficulties, and continuously promote and practice inculturation."

Regarding the theological foundation for localization, Father Zhang said that the former Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Father Pedro Arrupe, was inspired by the miracle of the Holy Birth. Arrupe believed that the birth itself was the greatest reason and example of localization, and that "churches should imitate Jesus, being actively 'born' into different cultures in an intimate way. They should accept the value of local culture, adapting to it and respecting it. They should express faith in the local culture and use the Gospel to innovate, improve, and contribute to the local culture while introducing the salvation of Christ." Furthermore, Christianity has already contributed to Chinese culture in promoting monogamy, stopping infant drowning, and promoting equality between men and women.

"On one hand, localization needs to respect and appreciate local cultures and use that to express the faith. On the other hand, Christianity should contribute to local cultures through innovation, purification, and improvement," Father Zhang said in closing.

The symposium will be discussing the following topics: Matteo Ricci's religious idea of Christianity Mission in China, foreign missionaries like Matteo Ricci and Nanchang, research on the development strategy of the church in China, Matteo Ricci and inculturation, encounter, dialogue and the practice of inculturation, the inculturation and sinicization of the church, topic on the translated names and the inculturation of sacred music, as well as the adaptation and development of the church. 

Translated by: Grace Hubl

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