Feast of Roberto de Nobili (January 16)   Leave a comment

roberto-de-nobili

Above:  Roberto de Nobili

Image in the Public Domain

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ROBERTO DE NOBILI (1577-JANUARY 16, 1656)

Roman Catholic Missionary in India

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Roberto de Nobili comes to the Ecumenical Calendar of Saints’ Days and Holy Days from The Book of Worship of the Church of North India (1995).

De Nobili, born to Italian nobility in Montepulciano, Tuscany, in 1577, devoted his adult life to God.  He joined the Society of Jesus at Naples in 1597.  The order sent him to southern India.  Our saint sailed for India in October 1604 and arrived in Goa in May 1605.  De Nobili moved to Madurai, Tamil Nadu, in November 1606.  Within a year he mastered the Tamil, Telugu, and Sanskrit languages.  He met Goncalo Fernandez, a fellow Jesuit who had labored as a missionary for a decade without converting one person.  De Nobili concluded that proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ in a manner agreeable to Hindu Brahmin culture might succeed.

So our saint pursued that strategy for half a century.  De Nobili dressed like a Hindu holy man and preached to people from all castes, converting many of them.  He pioneered a controversial method of evangelism, on of which Pope Gregory XV approved in 1623.  The perception of Christianity among many Hindus was that it was the religion of the invaders, and therefore undesirable.  De Nobili sought to overcome this problem.  He worked at Madura, Mysore, and Karotic.  Our saint wrote catechisms and apologetic works, translated prayers into indigenous languages, and pioneered a missionary strategy other Jesuits followed.  He preached the gospel of Jesus Christ constantly, even during times of incarceration, such as at Madura from 1639 to 1641.  Eventually blindness and bad health forced de Nobili to retire.  He died at Mylapore on January 16, 1656.

De Nobili’s mission, successful in the short term, failed in the long term.  By 1740 the number of Indian Christians exceeded 100,000.  In 1744, however, Pope Benedict XIV suppressed the methods de Nobili favored.  This did not help, but it did not change the fact that de Nobili and his successors, despite their best efforts, never changed the widespread perception among Hindus that Christianity was the religion of the invaders.

De Nobili has remained a subject of criticism, much of it vitriolic.  Certain websites (especially weblogs) I have found via a Google search have perpetuated accusations that he was a bad person–either a heretic or an imperialist–but still a proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing.  Southern Baptist missionary Cody C. Lorance offered a nuanced critique in 2005.  He was generally sympathetic toward de Nobili while arguing that the Jesuit contributed to the longterm failure of that missionary venture.  De Nobili, Lorance argued, should have translated the Bible or parts thereof, as Lutheran Bartholomeaus Ziegenbalg did subsequently.  The reason for that failure was the politics of the Counter-Reformation.  Lorance also criticized de Nobili for failing to encourage the education of Indians as priests and attributed that failure to cultural biases.

Certainly de Nobili, being a human being, was imperfect.  Yes, he could and should have done some things differently than he did.

Despite the validity of some criticisms of de Nobili and his tactics, I choose to focus on the positive.

De Nobili could have lived in relative comfort in Europe, but he chose to serve God in a foreign land.  He subjected himself to decades of hardship, including years of incarceration.  Through it all he proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ consistently.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

NOVEMBER 19, 2016 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF SAINT ELIZABETH OF HUNGARY, PRINCESS OF HUNGARY AND HUMANITARIAN

THE FEAST OF ALICE NEVIN, U.S. GERMAN REFORMED LITURGIST AND COMPOSER OF HYMN TEXTS

THE FEAST OF F. BLAND TUCKER, EPISCOPAL PRIEST

THE FEAST OF JOHANN HERMANN SCHEIN, GERMAN LUTHERAN COMPOSER

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Almighty God, who called your Church to witness that you were in

Christ reconciling men to yourself:  Help us so to proclaim the good news of your love,

that all who hear it may be reconciled to you; through him who died for us and rose again

and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Isaiah 49:1-6

Psalm 97 or 100

Ephesians 2:13-22

Matthew 28:16-20

Alternative Prayer Book 1984, page 750

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