Ricci Pilgrimage to China, 15-22 Oct 2010

November 5, 2010

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Fifty-four pilgrims, including seven Jesuits and several very senior citizens, the oldest being 88 years old and the others trailing not far behind. Eight grueling days from Macau to Beijing, including travel by air, land, and sea to out-of-the-way places in China. Some saw it as formula for disaster at worst, grave inconvenience for all at best, but believe it or not, the trip went smoothly, thanks to God’s grace and the discipline and goodwill of all the pilgrims.

They came from six Jesuit institutions in the Philippines dedicated to ministry among Chinese Filipinos. There were faculty and staff from Xavier School and Ateneo de Cebu, parishioners from Mary the Queen (Manila) and Sacred Heart (Cebu) parishes, plus the parish priest of Sta. Maria Chinese Parish in Iloilo. These 54 pilgrims set out for China to trace the steps of the great Jesuit missionary to China, Matteo Ricci, who died and was buried in Beijing 400 years ago.

Following Ricci’s “ascent to Beijing,” the trip began in Macau. The first stop was the St Joseph Seminary Church, where the humerus of St Francis Xavier is kept as a sacred relic. It was fitting to begin the pilgrimage in Macau, where Ricci spent one year learning Chinese before embarking for the Chinese mainland.

It was also appropriate to begin by recalling the memory of St Francis Xavier, whose dream it was to evangelize China after his forays in present-day Indonesia and Japan opened his mind to the importance of penetrating China if the rest of East Asia was to become hospitable to Christianity. After venerating the relic in Macau, the group set off the next day for the most difficult part of the journey– traveling to the island of Shangchuan, where St Francis Xavier died in 1552. This leg of the journey meant going through immigration in Macau, and then crossing the border into China on foot, with all our luggage to boot! The local travel guides kindly arranged for porters to assist the senior citizens, but this meant taking more time to get everyone through the border and into a waiting bus on the Chinese side, the city of Zhuhai.

After dropping off our luggage at the hotel, we traveled two hours by coach to the Shanju port, where we endured another wait for the next ferry to take us to Shangchuan. After a very late lunch on the island, we finally made it to the small church that marks the spot where St Francis died in 1552. It was very quiet, and we had a few moments in silence to connect with the dream of St Francis Xavier to evangelize China. We then gathered in the church and offered candles at his empty tomb (the remains were moved to Goa after a brief time on the island).

Our stay in Shangchuan was all too brief, as we had to catch the last ferry boat back to the mainland, but we were inspired by the thought that Matteo Ricci was born in Italy the same year that St Francis Xavier died in Shangchuan. Thirty years later, in 1582, Ricci would lead the first group of Jesuits to successfully establish a mission in China.

From Macao, Ricci had spent almost twenty years establishing missions in south China before he made it to Beijing. The pilgrims made Shanghai the next stop, home of Ricci’s most famous disciple, Xu Guangqi (a.k.a. Hsu Kuangchi, after whom Xavier School is named in Chinese).

The flight from Zhuhai to Shanghai took almost three hours, but there was enough time to make it to the Xujiahui cathedral, seat of the Shanghai diocese. Xujiahui is now a bustling commercial district, but it used to be a vast Catholic complex donated to the Church by the Xu family, following the lead of their famous ancestor Xu Guangqi. Xu was a scientist and mathematician who served the Ming court as prime minister for a brief period, also occupying many other positions in the royal bureaucracy.

The next morning, we got more acquainted with Xu by visiting his grave at a small park named in his honor. The rest of the day was spent at the premiere Marian shrine in China– Sheshan, located 45 minutes from the city of Shanghai. Built by the French Jesuits in the 19th century, the basilica on top of the small hill is capped by a famous image of Our Lady holding up the baby Jesus, in a gesture that foreshadows the crucifixion but also bestows a blessing on the people.

We prayerfully prayed the stations of the cross as we slowly ascended the hill and then celebrated Mass at the basilica.

The next day, we had Mass at the international parish of St Francis Xavier in Dongjiadu before spending the day at the World Expo.

Flying to Beijing from Shanghai, we visited the north, south, and east churches, all built by Jesuits and restored after the tumultous events of the 20th century. The climax of the pilgrimage was to visit the Jesuit graveyard, now located inside a Communist Party school, where the tombstones of Matteo Ricci and scores of other missionaries to China are kept.

The pilgrimage capped the renewal process in the Jesuit Chinese-Filipino Apostolate that has been going on for more than one year. Having identified some new “frontiers” in the apostolate, and having visited the sites sacred to Jesuit mission in China, both Jesuits and lay partners returned to their places of mission energized to take big and small steps for the realization of that dream which has captivated the spiritual descendants of St Francis Xavier and Matteo Ricci for centuries.


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