Francis hates proselytizing

In the deluge of interviews that accompanied his tenth anniversary as pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio went back to execrating “proselytism,” as he had done a thousand times before.

For him, evangelizing is simply bearing witness. In his support he cites Benedict XVI, who in Aparecida in 2007 said that the Church “does not engage in proselytism. Instead, she grows by attraction.” Or he refers to the apostolic exhortation “Evangelii nuntiandi” of Paul VI, who, it is true, also assigned a “capital importance” to silent witness, but right away added:

“Nevertheless this always remains insufficient, because even the finest witness will prove ineffective in the long run if it is not explained, justified – what Peter called always having ‘your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you all have’ – and made explicit by a clear and unequivocal proclamation of the Lord Jesus. The Good News proclaimed by the witness of life sooner or later has to be proclaimed by the word of life. There is no true evangelization if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, are not proclaimed.”

But there is no restraint that could hold Pope Francis back from his aversion. During his trip to Mozambique in September 2019, he confided to the local Jesuits: “I’ve said it many times: proselytism is not Christian. Today I felt a certain bitterness when a woman approached me with a young man and a young woman, and said to me: ‘Your Holiness, I am from South Africa. This boy was a Hindu and converted to Catholicism. This girl was Anglican and converted to Catholicism.’ She told me in a triumphant way, as though she was showing off a hunting trophy. I felt uncomfortable and said to her, ‘Madam, evangelization yes, proselytism no’.”

Even to the persecuted Chinese Catholics, in a video message, Francis gave order that they not “do proselytism,” as if this were their capital vice.

So who knows what the pope may have thought, reading the magnificent article by Father Federico Lombardi in the latest issue of “La Civiltà Cattolica,” in which he tells how Jesuit missionaries in seventeenth-century China spread the Christian faith even among the women, despite the ironclad restrictions that kept them segregated, unapproachable.

On the whole, according to the tally of a Jesuit of the time, in 1627 the missionaries had made 13,000 proselytes in China, rising to 40,000 in 1636, 60,000 in 1640, and 150,000 in 1651.

Among the women, the first to be baptized were, in 1589, “a few honored matrons,” wives or mothers of educated men catechized by Father Matteo Ricci in Zhaoqing, in southern China. But the “pivotal year” was 1601, with the arrival of Father Nicolò Longobardo in Shaozhou, where his first catechumen, a Mandarin, himself saw to teaching the women among his relations what he was learning bit by bit from the missionary, until they too were baptized and in turn “loved to get together with other women of lower social status, even peasants, who also became Christians, treating them as sisters, and this was an occasion of great wonder.”

Baptism was administered to women as follows, according to reports that the Jesuits sent to Rome: “After the instruction was completed by a family member, in one of the main rooms of their house an altar was raised on which the image of the Savior was displayed with candles and incense. Relatives and acquaintances hurried over. Then came the missionary, who, in front of their husbands and relatives, questioned the women about Christian doctrine, which they had to have down pat from top to bottom, and about the chief mysteries of Christianity. The women answered from the part of the house reserved for them, without marveling over being visited and examined by foreigners, an entirely new spectacle in the world of Chinese women.”

Even the practice of the personal confession of sins spread among them, despite the fact that it was “truly new and very daring” for a woman to speak secretly with a man, even worse with a foreigner. “For confession, the fathers were brought into a room divided by a curtain, through which they communicated with the woman without seeing her at all, while in another place in the room, far enough away not to hear, another person was present.”

In the villages and among the humbler classes, the constraints for women were less stringent. In 1607, Father Caspar Ferreira, on a mission near Beijing, told of a young Christian hosted by an acquaintance who every evening prayed at home with her family in front of an idol. The young woman explained that she could not join in this devotion, and on the contrary spoke of her Christian faith with such conviction and effectiveness “that nine whole families promised to come and listen to our preaching and be baptized.”

But “in the missionary strategy of the Jesuits of the time,” Father Lombardi writes, the goal was not only to proclaim the Gospel among the educated classes and high-ranking government officials, but also “to reach as far as the emperor, obtain his favor and authorization for Christian preaching and even arrive at his conversion.” In this “the protagonist was Father Adam Schall von Bell, a German, who arrived in Beijing in 1623 and was brought by the Catholic high official Xu Guangqi into the important program of calendar reform.”

Thousands of eunuchs lived in the imperial palace, but also many women, including those assigned to the emperor’s personal service, with whom only eunuchs could speak.

Well then, in 1635 Father Schall managed to convert to Christianity “a eunuch named Wang, of rare wisdom and virtue,” and through him spread the Christian faith among the ladies of the court and baptized several dozen of them, who “did not hide their faith” and whose virtuous behavior “inspired by respect, charity, and modesty won the admiration of the emperor.”

But in 1644 the Ming empire collapsed. From Beijing, occupied by the Manchus, a branch of the dynasty had to flee to the south, where in the court of their last pretender emperor, Yunli, other noblewomen received baptism, and with them also Yunli’s newborn son, who “was given the name of Constantine as an augury of his future as Christian emperor.” Until the Manchurians of the new Qing dynasty conquered the whole of China and killed all the males of the deposed imperial family, confining the noblewomen to a long imprisonment, made more bearable for the baptized – according to the Jesuits of the time – by “true Christian faith and sincere piety.”

It is at this point that Father Lombardi inserts into his article the story of Candida, a “true pillar” of the Chinese Church of the time, a Church “dynamic and at the time in flourishing development,” whose fame was spread in Europe thanks to a book by her spiritual father, the Jesuit Philippe Couplet.

Candida was the granddaughter of Xu Guangqi, “the most famous and authoritative disciple and friend of Father Matteo Ricci,” who became a Christian in 1603. Mother of eight children and a widow at 30, Candida would live another 40 years with the greater freedom allowed by widowhood. She was a master of silk embroidery, thanks to which she collected considerable sums, “which she used secretly, according to the counsel of the Gospel, to help missionaries and the poor, to build churches and chapels and everything necessary for the new Christians’ exercises of piety.”

Candida dedicated herself in particular “to the apostolate with women.” She had devotional books composed and printed for them in Chinese. She succeeded in setting up churches “specifically dedicated to women, where at established times they could go together to take part in the celebration of the Eucharist, without the presence of any man other than the priest and an altar boy.” She instructed Christian midwives “so that they knew how to baptize babies in danger of death.” For orphaned and abandoned children, “she convinced her son Basil, rich and established, to set aside one of his large homes to accommodate a great number of them,” with “many nurses to breastfeed them, and also the necessities for their upbringing and education.”

Not only that. “She went so far as to deal with the blind who roamed the busiest streets earning a living by telling fortunes and ‘giving good luck.’ She brought them together and provided for their needs, instructing them in the faith, so that they would go back to the streets reciting ‘the articles of the faith set to verse’ and teaching ‘the principles of the faith to the people, who gathered around to listen to them’.”

When Father Couplet was about to return to Europe, Candida entrusted to him, for the pope, a large number of books in Chinese that the missionaries had written, 300 of which are now kept in the Vatican Library, in order to convince Rome that the Church in China was vital and “mature enough to also have a Chinese clergy and to celebrate the liturgy in Chinese.”

The fame of this great woman reached as far as the new court of Beijing, where she was awarded the official title of “Virtuous Woman” and received as a gift from the emperor “a very rich gown decorated with embroidery and overlays of silver, together with a sumptuous headdress rich in pearls and precious stones.”

It is the image that even today is associated with her. Those who knew her, Father Lombardi writes, found in this extraordinary gown of hers “the eloquent sign of the esteem that she had won with her virtues and her industrious charity not only in the Christian community, but in Chinese society.” Candida “showed that the Christian faith could enliven the commitment and responsibility of a Chinese woman to the point of serving as a model and inspiration for all her compatriots.”

All the people of Sungkiang, her hometown, “regarded this woman as a saint,” concluded Father Couplet’s biography of Candida. And Father Lombardi: “We do too.”

A saint who was able to make many proselytes for the Christian faith, as the Gospel commands.