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Ricci Institute promotes study of Christianity in China

March 20, 2015
Father Robert Carbonneau, CP

This is one in a series of articles on the mission church in China, highlighting historic and current work by clergy, religious and laity from the San Francisco area. Passionist Father Robert Carbonneau, who is executive director, of the U.S. Catholic China Bureau in Berkeley and resides with the De LaSalle Christian Brothers at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory in San Francisco, suggested the series “to encourage San Francisco Catholics to learn about and respect the contribution of Chinese Catholic identity.”

It is no coincidence that one has to climb 106 steps from Turk Street to get atop the Lone Mountain campus at the University of San Francisco in order to visit the Ricci Institute for Chinese-Western Cultural history, founded in 1984 by Jesuit Father Edward Malatesta. Naming the Institute after Italian-born Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) manifested respect for the discerning spiritual and intellectual process of innovative cross- cultural dialogue undertaken by the missionary to China. Father Malatesta envisioned Ricci’s approach as a viable model to appreciate that the dynamics surrounding changes in Chinese society, world relations and academic inquiry of the late-1980s and offer insights on the life and faith of Chinese Catholics past and present.

Access to the Ricci Institute requires walking through the Del Santo Reading Room. Previously home to the Religious of the Sacred Heart San Francisco College for Women Library and now known colloquially by USF students as the Harry Potter Room, in truth reflective and perceptive students studying or visitors perusing on campus tours can ponder a subtle yet key component linking Father Ricci and late-1500s Chinese culture. The paneled bookcases in this reading room hold some 85,000 volumes written in Chinese, English and other languages available for use by appointment.

After the untimely death of Father Malatesta in 1998, Dr. Wu Xiaoxin and a small, dedicated staff continued to arrange institute events, conferences and oversee publications that enabled the Ricci Institute to attain international prestige. Wu’s eyes light up when he speaks of contemporary scholarly inquiry pertaining to Jesuit-Chinese dynastic relations or modern discourse on 20th-century Catholicism and Christianity. Abundant archival sources include a digital copy of the Canton Catholic Diocese records – an historic link to Cantonese-speaking Catholics.

Jesuit Father Antoni Ucerler, appointed as Ricci director in 2014, now supported by associate director Wu, jointly work to insure the institute retains Jesuit and Catholic identity. Father Ucerler, a member of the Japan Province of the Society of Jesus, passionately teaches the Ricci notion that the pursuit of genuine friendship and mutual respect was the foundation that fostered China’s historic rapport with the West. Likewise, his lived awareness of Pan-Asian learning in Japan and Europe informs his commitment to ensuring that the Ricci Institute foster rigor, imagination, respect for tradition and embrace digital technology. Indeed San Francisco is the perfect location. With the assistance of USF as well generous benefactors, Father Ucerler asserts that Father Ricci’s paradigm is still relevant, humbling, genuine and applicable for scholars or students who wish to use the Ricci Institute collection.

One current scholar inspired by Ricci’s principle of friendship as a means of cross-cultural understanding is Ariel Janesh, who entered the the M.A program in Asia Pacific Studies at USF and now has a Ricci Institute Fellowship. Her decision was a quest to understand Ricci because his principles of friendship are timeless. Classes and the fellowship have solidified her experience of living in Italy and years of study and employment in China.

Next time you walk up the Lone Mountain steps consider visiting the Ricci Institute. Discern how the spiritual and intellectual process of innovative crosscultural dialogue undertaken by Matteo Ricci speaks to the ongoing legacy of San Francisco and the Chinese community.

Visit the U.S. Catholic China Bureau at www.uscatholicchina.org. Email Father Carbonneau at director@uscatholicchina.org.

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