by Martha Zhao
Beijing (Agenzia Fides) - "Retracing Matteo Ricci's journey, from Zhaoqing to Beijing, has touched us deeply. Along the way, we have marveled many times at the signs and memories that have reminded us of his perseverance, his wisdom and his missionary passion". Father Peter Zhao, vicar of the Archdiocese of Beijing, warmly recounts to Fides the astonishment and inner consolation that accompanied the singular itinerant experience he shared with a group of young Catholics between the end of April and the first week of May: a pilgrimage to the places visited during his adventure in China by the great Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, today declared Venerable by Pope Francis, in view of the anniversary of his death (which took place in Beijing exactly 413 years ago, on May 11, 1610). "Throughout this unusual journey", Father Peter Zhao adds to Fides, "Matteo Ricci helped to recognize that the Church in China is, in fact, similar to the mustard seed that Jesus speaks of: a small seed that a man took and threw in the field, and then it grew, becoming a shrub, 'and the birds settled among its branches' ".
During the nine-day pilgrimage, from April 28 to May 6, Father Zhao and his companions climbed the Chong Xi Pagoda, which was also visited by Matteo Ricci; they made an excursion on the ancient Meiling pass, which the Jesuit missionary crossed; they stopped and prayed on the banks of the river Gan, where Matteo fell from the boat along with his unfortunate community confrere, who lost his life in that accident.
Along the way, Father Zhao and his young fellow pilgrims gained an idea of the dangers Matteo Ricci faced on his journey, and also of the tenacity that kept him going. They also prayed in Zhangyuan, where Ricci had debated with senior Ming dynasty officials and scholars; and they immersed their hands in the river, in front of the old pier, to touch the water at a point through which the boat carrying the Jesuit passed.
"Following in his footsteps, everything spoke to us of his perseverance, and aroused in us immense gratitude and reverence for him", Teresa Yang, one of the pilgrim girls, told Agenzia Fides. The other young people who have followed Father Zhao also confirm the inner impact that participation in the pilgrimage has had on them, and add significant observations: walking in the footsteps of Matteo Ricci has helped everyone to free themselves from biased and stereotyped interpretations that circulate around the human and Christian adventure of the Jesuit missionary. "The pilgrimage" Joseph Yu tells Fides "freed me from partial impressions that were based on certain scholarly expressions read in history books or on the way in which his figure appears in engravings and portraits of the time. As a history buff, I used to appreciate Matteo Ricci's contribution to science and culture and label him simply as a pioneer of cultural exchange between East and West. But when we embarked on his journey, a new image of Matteo Ricci gradually emerged, the full image and not the reduced image of commonplaces. A 'three-dimensional' image, the image of a Christian. We have been able to perceive his missionary spirit, the missionary passion that was the source of everything he did. His greatest merit was that of sowing the seeds of the Church in China".
Maria Gao, another young woman from the group of pilgrims, says that "the admiration for Matteo Ricci grew as we proceeded on our itinerary: we saw and experienced first-hand the difficulties he had to face, and his perseverance". Throughout the trip, in the reflections shared during the journey and in the homilies delivered during the celebration of the Masses, Father Peter Zhao never missed an opportunity to illustrate and document the testimony of faith given by Matteo Ricci to his contemporaries, which is now being studied in the process initiated for the canonization of the Jesuit born in Macerata (Italy).
The pilgrimage then became for the participants also an occasion to live a free and real experience of ecclesial communion. The masses celebrated by Father Zhao in the various parishes have always seen the participation of priests and local communities. "Wherever we went - continues Maria Gao - the local priests and parishioners were amazed and inspired by the story of Matteo Ricci told by Father Peter, and they prayed with us. Perhaps our pilgrimage has contributed to rekindling small flames of missionary zeal, which have the same nature and the same source as the missionary passion that moved Matteo Ricci".
At sunset on May 11, 1610, Matteo Ricci died in Beijing, in the church dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, which he founded in 1605. On the occasion of the 413th anniversary of his death, the parish of the Immaculate Conception organizes a commemoration and a special prayer dedicated to the founding father. The appointment is set for today, Thursday, May 11 2023 at 6:30 p.m. Priests, religious and lay people present will pray for the beatification of Matteo Ricci. (Agenzia Fides, 11/5/2023)