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Father Ricci’s funeral acknowledged in highest possible style 400 years later

MACAU (SE): “Jesuits do not sing,” goes the old adage. But just 400 years ago almost to the day, sing they did at the funeral in Beijing of the great missionary, Father Matteo Ricci sj, on the feast of All Saints, 1 November 1611.

David Francis Urrows, from the Baptist University in Hong Kong, said at a seminar sponsored by the Ricci Institute at the Macau Institute for Tourism on November 10, that history records the funeral as being “celebrated in the highest possible style, with organ and other musical instruments.”

He added that coming almost one-and-a-half years after the 11 May 1610 death of Father Ricci, the day was more a celebration of his life than mourning for his death, and was combined with the reopening of buildings on the site containing his grave in Zhalan, Beijing, as well as the consecration of a chapel within the complex.

Urrows summarised the tone of the funeral in the words of William Shakespeare from All’s Well that Ends Well, “Moderate lamentation is the right of the dead, excessive grief the enemy of the living.”

He also noted that the use of music at the funeral of Father Ricci was a new trend in Jesuit life, as prior to 1600 it had rarely appeared on the curriculum of the society’s educational institutions, only beginning to be seen as an inevitable inclusion at about the time Father Ricci left Lisbon, Portugal, for Asia, in 1578.

Urrows added that it was also a tribute to the great missionary’s own creativity in music, which, as Elisabeth Corsi points out, had “paved the way to the belief in the evangelising virtues of music, even if this attitude contravened the Ignatian dictates against the use of music in pastoral, as well as liturgical services.”

Urrows mused over what type of organ may have been played in Beijing, saying it was probably a processional (portable) type and, in all probability, trumpet, harp, viols, violin and possibly harpsichord may also have been available.

However, the fledgling Jesuit community had plenty to celebrate, as Yu Sanle, from the Beijing Administrative College, pointed out that Father Ricci’s successors and Chinese friends had written a memorial to the emperor, Wanli, requesting permission for him to become the first foreigner to be officially buried in Beijing.

While some officials argued against the break with tradition, the grand secretary to the cabinet, Ye Xianggao, noted in his request to the emperor, “Among all the westerners coming to China before, no one else could compare with Matteo Ricci in either terms of morality or knowledge.”

He continued, “Not to mention anything else, only his contribution of translating The Elementary Geometry is enough to earn him a graveyard in Beijing.”

In the following 150 years, 88 priests were to be buried in the same plot of land at Tenggong Zhalan, the most notable among them being Father Adam Schall von Bell, Father Ferdinand Verbiest and Father Tomás Pereira.

A succession of speakers at the seminar spoke of the circumstance of Father Ricci’s death, his approach to preaching about Christian death and the political significance of his burial in Beijing.

Father Gianni Criveller, from the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong, said that Father Ricci had prepared himself for death in the traditional manner of a priest, insisting on getting out of his sick bed for his last confession, despite his extreme infirmity.

He added that his spiritual dairy reveals that he prayed for the emperor in his last days, hoping for his conversion to Christianity and, even though Jesuit custom dictates the destruction of all personal effects upon death, Father Guilio Aleni, who arrived in Macau the year that Father Ricci died, notes in The Life of Master Ricci that his dairy revealed that up to 55 officials and literati interacted with him.

Liu Jing-jing, from the Macau Ricci Institute, told the seminar that Father Ricci had translated his own Italian poetry and songs about death as part of his preaching on the topic. She explained that he preached the temporary nature of life on earth, quoting, “In the bustle of the world, years go by and quickly reach an end, pressuring the living… No matter your beauty… you close your eyes in death.”

She added that a well received line reads, “All the riches you have accumulated with so much effort day after day will be enjoyed by your descendents, squandered at once.” Liu noted that Father Ricci presented this material at the emperor’s palace.

Liu said that traditionally, death and afterlife were not great concerns of the Confucian literati, but by 1530 there was a recognition that the desire for life and fear of death were acceptable emotions.

Nevertheless, a convert, Paul Xu Guangqi, did question Father Ricci about it.

The Jesuit replied, “The question of gain or loss in the next life is a real question, not to be compared with gain or loss in this world.”

Much of his preaching was aimed at countering the attitude that there is no need to prepare for death. Since a common belief held that some good deeds are rewarded in this life, a system of ledgers of merit and demerit was a popular theory.

Father Ricci countered that the Lord of Heaven is bound to wait until death before determining our eternal fate. His line, “Heaven is nothing other than that glorious place where those of past and present, who have cultivated humanity and righteousness, forgather,” was mostly aimed at the Buddhist doctrine of the transmigration of souls, which he condemned as absurd.

Father Ricci’s tomb was destroyed twice in the last century, once during the Boxer Revolution in 1900 and once during the Cultural Revolution in 1974. 

Father Criveller related that two bones, believed to belong to Father Ricci, had been picked up from the remains of his grave by a German military chaplain and presented to the Jesuits in his home town of Macerata, Italy.

The graveyard was repaired by the Chinese government upon the insistence of the Allied Powers and Yu explained that in the 1950s the graveyard of the missionaries was kept intact at the order of the premier, Chou Enlai.

Then, at the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1978, a document signed by party chairperson, Hua Guofeng, and four vice chairpersons, Ye Jianying, Li Xiannian, Deng Xiaoping and Wang Dongxing, approved the suggestion of a delegation led by Xu Dixin, that had visited Macerata, that the tombs be repaired.

In 2006, the place became one of the key national cultural relics.

Although Yu noted that most Chinese people are not all that interested in the graveyard, it is seen as an important memorial to the first meaningful contact of China with the western world and has become a mirror of China’s opening up.

Although it is doubtful that the 8 or 10 Jesuits and handful of local faithful who gathered in the chill of 1 November 1611 to celebrate the life of Father Ricci in highest possible style did as well as the 17-strong cantata, accompanied by Urrows on the organ under the direction of Mike Ryan, in their rendition of the Music of Ricci’s Funeral at St. Joseph’s Old Seminary Chapel, it had been the focal point of a 400-year-old day.

Built around the requiem of the Spanish composer, Tomás Luis de Victoria, whom Father Ricci had probably met, Urrows explained that while we really do not know what happened, the recital is more of a concept than a recreation, and a 21st century acknowledgement of a life worth celebrating.