You may have heard the story before. It is one of my favorite anecdotes from Jesuit history.
King John III of Portugal was interested in having missionaries go to their colony in Goa, India. The Catholic monarch turned to St. Ignatius of Loyola and asked him to send him a few good men. Never one to turn down a challenge, Ignatius said yes. His first choice was the Portuguese Fr. Simon Rodrigues. This made sense. Goa was a Portuguese colony, it falls from the tree (“se cae de la mata”) to send the guy who could best speak the language. But as divine providence would have it, Fr. Rodrigues got sick in Lisbon just before departing and was unable to go. Ignatius then turned to Francis Xavier. The rest is history.
When the overzealous Navarrese was instructed by Ignatius to, “go and set the world on fire,” he launched into a missionary fury the likes has seldom been seen before or since. Francis Xavier’s passion took him farther and farther east. First India, then Japan, only to be stopped six miles off the coast of China where on the island of Sangchuan he was struck with a severe illness that finally took his life. Talk about running to the fire, this guy sprinted.
Since then, Jesuits have been involved in missionary work in the Far East. Great are the stories of their adventures and accomplishments. One of the greatest is Fr. Matteo Ricci. Born in the Papal States in Italy, as a young seminarian he would voraciously read the letters Xavier would write from the Orient. As he learned of the challenges and exploits of his courageous brothers, he felt the missionary fire burn inside of him. Shortly after ordination, he volunteered to head east and help spread the Good News. But what is most attractive about Ricci is not simply the fact that he was a great priest and theologian, he was an extraordinary scientist as well.
A noted mathematician, astronomer, cartographer, and writer, Ricci understood that science was a formidable springboard to the transcendent. Using science and reason to speak about God, showing off clocks and maps never seen before in China, introducing mnemonic devices that dazzled the imperial court, and recognizing that God was already present in the many writings of Confucius and eastern philosophy and spirituality, opened the doors for him and made it possible to build churches and cathedrals, establish a school, and bring about conversions. Ricci impressed the Chinese so much that he became the first European to be given access to the Forbidden City and the Imperial Palace by the emperor himself.
Over 400 years later, the Jesuits continue their presence in Asia. Whether it is Sophia University in Japan, the Beijing Center in China, or St. Ignatius High School in Taiwan, the Jesuits have continued to plant the seeds of the gospel in a land that has oftentimes been hostile to it.
Hopefully, by now you have had a chance to read our recently published strategic plan. The four pillars it is based on set the foundation that will help take Belen to the next level. In particular, the third pillar, Forming Well-Rounded Men, sets the expectation that Belen will, “better prepare its students to excel as global citizens in a richly diverse and ever-changing world.” The plan proposes to do that by, “developing and promoting programs that expose students, faculty, and staff to a global perspective beyond their individual experience.”
Several years ago, Belen introduced Mandarin into the school curriculum. The program has taken off. This year we decided to offer the class as early as middle school. In addition, we established a relationship with the Jesuit high school in Taipei, Taiwan and launched a student exchange program. Next week, Mr. Jose Roca, our principal, and I will be traveling to Taiwan to visit the school and its administration. The purpose of our trip is to express to our Jesuit brothers in the East our interest in strengthening our relationship, thus, addressing our goal of creating opportunities for our students to become global citizens.
Last week Belen Jesuit hosted for lunch Mr. Phillip Wang, Director General of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office of Miami along with his staff and Dr. June Teufel Dreyer, professor of Political Science at the University of Miami, in order to explore the opportunities that such a relationship with Taiwan can have for Belen Jesuit and the students of Taiwan. As we sat together, I couldn’t help but think of what St. Francis Xavier, or Fr. Mateo Ricci, or even Fr. Ignatius himself would have thought of these efforts to strengthen the bond between two groups separated by thousands of miles, yet united in a desire to learn from each other.
I shared with General Director Wang our vision of creating a space on campus that celebrates the necessary marriage between faith and reason. Because of the impact that Matteo Ricci had on Asia and his extraordinary ability to use science as a way of bringing people to a greater awareness of God’s presence in their lives, an image of the great Jesuit missionary should adorn the space. By renovating the patio in front of the science pavilion and rededicating it to faith and reason, Belen Jesuit can celebrate its commitment to the field of science, while expressing its interest in exposing our young men to the richness of Eastern cultures.
The stories of missionary giants like Ricci and others need to be told and our young men need to hear them. Understanding that they profess a faith that is boldly enriched by its necessary relationship with reason and science, not only speaks to the very mission of Belen Jesuit, but enriches the educational and spiritual experience of our students. This summer project will take just a few short months to complete, but its impact will on many generations to come.