Feast of Alessandro Valignano (January 19)   Leave a comment

Above:  Alessandro Valignano

Image in the Public Domain

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ALESSANDRO VALIGNANO (FEBRUARY 15, 1539-JANUARY 20, 1606)

Italian Jesuit Missionary Priest in the Far East

INTRODUCTION

Father Alessandro Valignano comes to this, A Great Cloud of Witnesses:  An Ecumenical Calendar of Saints’ Days and Holy Days, via Robert Ellsberg, All Saints:   Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time (1997).

I, as a Christian, respect properly-done missionary work.  On the other hand, improperly-done missionary work makes me cringe and proves to be counter-productive.  It turns people off.  The historical record of Christianity is replete with examples of missionaries whose cultural and political imperialism hindered their effectiveness for God.  I recall easily, for example, that, in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), rejecting Christianity became part of the struggle for political independence.  (Christianity was the religion of the Dutch imperial overlords.)

Some of the many holy people I have added to this Ecumenical Calendar have been culturally-sensitive missionaries.  They respected the people to whom they went.  These missionaries’ effectiveness (or lack thereof) depended largely on how much ecclesiastical support they had.  Their cultural sensitivity aided their effectiveness by not alienating the people they were trying to convert.

Now I add another great missionary, a man ahead of his time.

BIOGRAPHY

Alessandro Valignano, born in Chieti, Kingdom of Naples, on February 15, 1539, came from nobility.  Our saint studied at the University of Padua, from which he graduated with a doctorate in law when only 19 years old.  He spent a few years in Rome then studied theology in Padua.  Valignano, who joined the Society of Jesus in 1566, rose to become the Visitor of Missions in the Indies in 1573.  Macao was his base of operations when he was not traveling.

Valignano had much in common with a more famous missionary and a contemporary, Matteo Ricci (1552-1610).  Valignano and Ricci practiced adaptionism, a missionary method that caused much controversy.  As long as nobody violated any matter crucial to Christianity–Roman Catholicism, in particular–adapting to the local culture was necessary and proper.  Adaptionism proved to be controversial; many European purists condemned it.

Valignano became a scholar and a master of Chinese language and culture; he was fluent in both.  This was crucial to the intended success of the Jesuit mission in China, he understood.

Our saint visited Japan (1579-1583, 1590-1592, and 1598-1603).  He brought the message of adaptionism to the Jesuit mission in those islands.  Valignano condemned the racism certain missionaries exhibited.  He also criticized the poor Japanese language skills some Jesuit missionaries had, even after spending years in Japan.  Offending Japanese people was no way to convert any of them, our saint understood.  He imposed strict rules regarding linguistic study for Jesuits in Japan.  Valignano also required that Jesuit missionaries in Japan learn Japanese customs.  Furthermore, he founded seminaries.  Valignano’s reform of the Jesuit mission in Japan coincided with official persecution during the Tokugawa Shogunate.  The government associated Christianity with European imperialism.

Valignano never got to make the mission to China.  Ricci did that.  Ecclesiastical infighting undercut their work.  The Vatican suppressed adaptionism in the 1600s.

Valignano, aged 66 years, died in Macao on January 20, 1606.  At the time, he was planning to visit Ricci in China.

CONCLUSION

The Tokugawa Shogunate martyred hundreds of missionaries and Japanese converts from 1597 to 1639.  Yet Christianity survived underground until the late 1800s, when more missionaries arrived.  Valignano had much to do with the survival of Christianity in Japan.

Eventually, the Vatican realized that Valignano had been wise.

My late grandmother Taylor, a Presbyterian, told me a story about Southern Presbyterian missionaries in a remote part of Peru earlier in the twentieth century.  They were translating the New Testament into the local dialect.  The missionaries encountered a minor difficulty when they got to the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem; nobody in the area had ever seen a donkey.  Remaining consistent with the theme of Jesus riding a beast of burden, the missionaries translated “donkey” as “llama.”

Back in northwestern Georgia, opinion regarding this translation choice was divided.  My grandmother and many others understood and approved of the adaptation to the local culture.  Purists, however, disapproved.  Jesus had to ride a donkey, not a llama.  Period.  End of discussion.

Some people had not learned what Valignano knew well, centuries prior.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

SEPTEMBER 3, 2021 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF JEDEDIAH WEISS, U.S. MORAVIAN CRAFTSMAN, MERCHANT, AND MUSICIAN

THE FEAST OF ARTHUR CARL LICHTENBERGER, PRESIDING BISHOP OF THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH, AND WITNESS FOR CIVIL RIGHTS

THE FEAST OF F. CRAWFORD BURKITT, ANGLICAN SCHOLAR, THEOLOGIAN, HYMN WRITER, AND HYMN TRANSLATOR

THE FEAST OF JAMES BOLAN LAWRENCE, EPISCOPAL PRIEST AND MISSONARY IN SOUTHWESTERN GEORGIA, U.S.A.

THE FEAST OF SUNDAR SINGH, INDIAN CHRISTIAN EVANGELIST

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Almighty God, whose will it is to be glorified in your saints,

and who raised up your servant Alessandro Valignano to be a light in the world:

Shine, we pray, in our hearts, that we also in our generation may show forth your praise,

who called us out of darkness into your marvelous light;

through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with

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

Isaiah 49:1-6

Psalm 98 or 98:1-4

Acts 17:22-31

Matthew 28:16-20

Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), 717

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