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Resurrecting a key player in 
Chinese Rites Controversy


CASTORANO (AsiaNews): A conference was held to study the role played by Father Carlo Orazi, one of the key figures in the Chinese Rites Controversy of the early 18th century, in Castorano, Italy, from October 26 to 27.

Father Orazi was a Franciscan, who was sent to China by what is known today as the Vatican Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples (Propaganda Fide) in 1700. He was to remain in Beijing for 32 years.

The chairperson of the conference, Hong Kong-based Father Gianni Criveller, from the Pontifical Mission Institute for Foreign Missions, described the Franciscan missionary as recognising only one authority on earth, the congregation which sent him to China.

The congregation had taken up a position against Catholics using the rites well before the controversy was settled by a decision from the Holy See and the pope on the matter.

The Chinese Rites issue goes back to the time of Jesuit Father Matteo Ricci, who died in 1610.

According to the Jesuit missionary, rites venerating Confucius and ancestors, which every good Chinese had to perform, were civil rites, and consequently did not constitute idolatry.

For this reason, Father Ricci maintained they could be carried out, even after conversion to the Christian faith.

“Father Orazi staunchly supported the position of the congregation,” Father Criveller said, “and banned anyone who became a Christian from using the Chinese Rites.”

The Holy See eventually sided with the congregation and the rites were banned officially by the Church, a decision which has subsequently been described, with the advantage of hindsight, as a great tragedy for the mission of the Church in China.

Nevertheless, Father Criveller describes Father Orazi as a great Sinologist, who was instrumental in setting up the Chinese section at the Vatican Apostolic Library.

“Therefore, it is important to rescue this important scholar from the historiographic obscurity imposed on him and study the contribution he made to the Catholic mission in China,” Father Criveller said.

Born in Castorano (Ascoli Piceno), Italy, in 1673, Father Orazi played a major role in the early history of the Church in China that deeply marked its mission and relations between Beijing and the Holy See.

In China, he represented the position of Rome against the rites and was tasked with publishing the Condemnation of the Rites issued by Pope Clement XI in 1704 and 1715.

Father Criveller said that both the Franciscans and the Dominicans regarded the rites as idolatrous, perhaps because they were more in contact with popular religions than the Jesuits and believed that they should be banned for converts. 

The affair had dragged on for more than a century with the distressing result that interest in Christianity fell among intellectuals and in the imperial court.

After his return to Rome in 1733, Father Orazi presented 371 memorials to the Holy See, in which he called on the Church to end the controversy over Chinese Rites by condemning all accommodations made in China.

“In the end, he got what he wanted,” Father Criveller notes.

Pope Benedict XIV ended the controversy in 1742, issuing the papal bull, Ex quo singulari, which formally banned the rites and the Jesuit practice of accommodation.

International scholars attending the conference include Francesco D’Arelli (Rome), Claudia von Collani (Wsteürzburg), Giacomo Di Fiore (Naples), Matteo Nicolini Zani (Bose), Michela Catto (Paris), Paolo Aranha (London), Clara Yu Dong (in charge of the Chinese section at the Vatican Apostolic Library, Rome) and Rosina Li Hui (Beijing/Rome).

After the Condemnation of the Rites was published in Rome, the pope ordered Father Orazi to retire to private life in Castorano and to stop sending memorials on the matter of the rites or speaking about them.

As we know, the Holy See changed its position vis-à-vis the old and complicated controversy. 

In 1939, it overturned its previous decision and accepted the rightfulness of the rites, as Father Ricci had originally claimed. 

Despite his views on the rites, Father Orazi was the author of a Chinese grammar book and the first Latin-Chinese-Italian dictionary, a tool useful to missionaries and traders alike.

Parva Elucubratio, a work written for Pope Benedict IV, is a critical synthesis of works in Chinese, containing both the classics and the jottings of missionaries.

He translated the Nestorian Stele from Xi’an, the first Christian document in Chinese, which shows that the first missionaries from the Syriac Church reached the great Asian country in 625.

Father Orazi was the author of many works and brought valuable Chinese texts back to Rome, all of which are now in the Vatican Apostolic Library. 

They describe China’s civilisation and the state of the Catholic mission.

For his endeavour, Propaganda Fide granted him and his family a benefit for the duration of his life. He passed away in Castorano in 1755.


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