Learning from Ricci

Learning from Ricci


I got to reconnect with my China life last week. And in doing so, I was reminded of the extent to which St. Michael’s serves as a crossroads, connecting people and ideas, linking us with a rich past and helping us to discern an emerging future.

The trigger for this flow of associations was an invitation from Professor Francesco Guardiani  who teaches in the University of Toronto’s Department of Italian Studies. He asked me to say a few words at the opening, in Fr. Madden Hall,  of an conference celebrating the rich history of cultural exchanges between Italy and China.

My favourite chapter in this story concerns the work of some remarkable 16th and 17th century Italian Jesuits. Matteo Ricci, whose statue I always visited on my way into and out of Beijing’s “South Cathedral,” stands as a giant among these great men. You can’t be a foreigner in China, struggling to understand and to be understood, without feeling something akin to awe in respect to Ricci and his colleagues. Almost completely cut off from home, strangers in what was to them a very strange land, at once diligent students and patient teachers, they worked through innumerable misunderstandings and struggles with amazing faith and determination. In time, they earned the respect of elites in a society that still believed itself to be the centre of the world, and that typically relegated outsiders to the status of barbarians. Ricci somehow penetrated China’s closed and enormously self-confident imperial court.  His humility, curiosity, scholarship and profound human sympathy allowed him to achieve what had seemed impossible. Indeed, the South Cathedral stands on the land that the Wanli Emperor had gifted to Ricci.

Professor Guadiani shared with me his deep respect for Ricci and his community of wise and holy men. He observed that their pioneering work as teachers in China and in many other far-flung and ambitious mission projects has shaped thinking about pedagogy down to the present. Guardiani explained to me that the Jesuit approach was to an important extent sequential in nature, always beginning with an acknowledgement of profound respect for the student. It was based, in other words, on the recognition of our shared humanity.  True education flows first from that human connection, which lays the groundwork for a two-way exchange of ideas. Guardiani went on to note how beneficial (and consistently implemented) that approach had been in Jesuit missions in Asia, Africa and the Americas.

As I approached the lectern in Fr. Madden Hall, I noticed my friend Dr. John Meehan, S.J., in the audience. I had first met him when he led a group of students from the University of Regina’s Campion College on a field trip to China. I hosted the students and briefed them on Canada-China relations.  In the course of our conversation, I  asked them to consider the human factor in the seemingly impersonal workings of statecraft. As it happened, we were gathered in the embassy meeting room named after Alvin Hamilton, a son of Saskatchewan whose personal commitment to sell Canadian wheat to what was then considered “Red China” helped bring an end to a period of famine and widespread suffering.

It’s an often forgotten chapter in the narrative of our bilateral relationship, but it had a huge impact. A decade after the sale, officials in both countries were celebrating the launch of Canada-China diplomatic relations.  Premier Zhou Enlai underlined the connection for our then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, reminding him: “We’re doing this because you sold us wheat when nobody else would.” I told the students that while there was certainly a lot of salesmanship in Hamilton’s proposal, I also think that he understood and valued the idea of our shared humanity.

Interestingly, Fr. Meehan will be among the Jesuits who join us in Fr. Madden Hall on June 22nd when we will host a conference that focuses on another, more recent experiment in cross-cultural pedagogy. We will be looking specifically at the education-related recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC’s mandate was, of course, to examine, try to understand  and learn from the tragic legacy of Residential Schools.  It was through these schools and related policies that the Government of Canada and various religious institutions, Catholic organizations among them, signally failed to respect the humanity that they shared with their aboriginal students.  All too often, school administrators and teachers abused and humiliated vulnerable young people consigned to their care.

We will be inviting a range of experts, school survivors among them, to share their ideas. The emphasis will be on looking forward, trying to brainstorm creative responses in implementing lessons learned,  all with a view to crafting a healthier, more effective and truly respectful approach to delivering education in aboriginal communities.

That said, we may want to spend a little time looking backwards in the company of the Jesuits and others, learning from Ricci and his brothers, and harvesting lessons from a more enlightened past.

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