A Companion to Early Modern Catholic Global Missions, edited by Ronnie Po-Chia Hsia

In: Journal of Jesuit Studies

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Leiden: Brill, 2018. Pp. x + 488. Hb, €190.00.

This volume is a collection of fourteen essays divided into five parts written by scholars whose research and work centers on the Catholic missions between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries in different places of the world. Contributors are Mark Christensen, Aliocha Maldavsky, Guillermo Wilde, Anne McGinness, and Dominique Deslandres, for the Americas; Alan Strathern for Africa; Adina Ruiu and Christian Windler for the Islamic World; Ines Županov, Tara Alberts, M. Antoni J. Üçerler, S.J., and R. Po-chia Hsia for Asia; Fred Vermote and Christoph Nebgen for the fifth and last part of the book on “The Structures” (finance and missionaries).

As expressed by the title, the essays offer a global view of the missions in three different continents as far as their organization, finances, personnel, and history were concerned, and their relation with distant Europe, together with the composite political, cultural, and religious contexts of the missionary fields. By working within this kaleidoscopic frame, the perception and understanding we have of this fascinating theme is that of a far more complex and rich picture that we could expect.

This approach is in line with recent trends in historiography and particularly with the work of all the authors, with special mention of the editor, Ronnie Po-Chia Hsia, professor at the Department of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University and an eminent scholar of the Chinese Catholic missions in the early modern period. His research focuses on questions of translation and cultural encounters, and acknowledges the use of primary sources. These same perspectives are reflected in Po-Chia Hsia’s introductory essay and can be found in each of the essays included in this book, thus enlightening the recent scholarship and offering a reflection on the achievements in present trends of research.

The first part of the book focuses on the Americas, with essays discussing Christianity in Mexico (Christensen), the Andes (Maldavsky), Paraguay (Wilde), Brazil (McGinness), and New France (Deslandres). Particularly worth noting are the questions raised and the analysis developed around topics such as the role of indigenous populations in the missions; the learning of local or indigenous languages by the missionaries; the use of the press and the context of the production of missionary sources; the continuity of pre-European beliefs and the incorporation of rituals and ceremonies. From these standpoints, Mexico, the Andes, and Paraguay were fertile terrains, as they were for tackling problems associated with evangelization in the borderlands and manifestations of resistance. Conflicts and cooperation with local powers and/or communities remind us that each context had its particularities (even from the point of view of the colonial situation itself) and that the different backgrounds evolved with time, requiring adjustments. The study of the Catholic missions in Brazil similarly conveys these realities. Moreover, its geographical setting in the context of the Atlantic within global history attests to the necessity of examining the action of the missionaries from this angle.

Questions of gender and the role played by women—or to say it in other words, a “female agency”—are sharply examined within the territory of New France, in North America, a region that had France as the colonial power, when previously we were within the domains of the Iberian empires. If there is one unifying theme in this volume it is that of empire and mission, and this evidence is once again decisive for understanding the Catholic missions in sub-Saharan Africa (Strathern), in the second part of the book. Africa, which remains regionally fragmented, is here examined taking into account its commercial interest to Europe, mainly Portugal, and its integration in trade networks and as a territory of state construction. The concept of “theological diplomacy” is sharply scrutinized, as it is the local readings and interpretations of symbols.

Although it was not the aim of this volume to encompass all the regions of evangelization, I believe that if Ethiopia had been included it would not only introduce an interesting and meaningful addition to the African context, it would also allow for grasping different problems relating to sovereignty, missionary methods and strategies, and myths and traditions. Moreover, it would make a significant association to both the Islamic and Asian context, which are the contents of part three and four of the book respectively.

The Islamic world, the least studied in the history of Christian missions, comprises the Ottoman Empire (Ruiu) and the Safavid Empire (Windler). The first essay stresses the way in which Catholic Europe related to the geopolitical reality of the eastern Mediterranean, the French Jesuit mission in Constantinople, and the conflict between religious orders (Jesuits and Capuchins). As for the second essay, the analysis focuses on how communion in sacred things (communicatio in sacris)—that is to say, a number of sacramental practices—was dealt with by Catholic missionaries and the Roman Curia in Persia. In so doing, it examines the association between Rome, missionaries, and converts in the Safavid Empire.

Within the structure of the book, the Ottoman and Safavid empires pave the way for Christianization in areas of Asian imperial power: India (Županov), Vietnam (Alberts), Japan (Üçerler), and China (Hsia). Similar to the previously examined Catholic missions, the Jesuits, the first transnational missionary order, are in the center of this debate. This is largely because unlike the mendicants and other religious orders that lacked a central hierarchy, the Jesuits’ organization, administrative procedures, and modus operandi gave rise to a substantial amount of information. Asia was a proficuous terrain for these missionaries to envisage Catholic missions as places of epistemological experiments and cultural encounters, where language was a key instrument for evangelization. Here, missionaries related to different religions and philosophical systems (Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, etc.), frequently acting as cultural mediators. In places where they had to rely on the goodwill of the authorities to proceed with their work, missionaries associated their evangelical work with that of commercial and sometimes military agents. In this respect, as well as the economic and social strategies adopted, the interrelation between the Vietnamese, Japanese, and Chinese missions deserves further examination.

Aiming and succeeding at being an all-encompassing companion to the early modern Catholic global missions, this collection of essays is a relevant and valuable book to help us better understand this theme in a holistic way. It does so by connecting the local with regional and global levels and by shifting the gaze from one center to the other: Europe, as one of the world centers, is focused in the last part of the book. Globalization is here considered as a plural phenomenon with multiple histories in itself, numerous levels, and different perspectives. There are, of course, more issues to address, namely the comparison between Protestant and Catholic missions, as Ronnie Po-Chia Hsia acknowledges at the end of his introduction. Apart from topics such as this, I would add the inclusion of the material and visual cultures of the Catholic missions in the early modern world, an approach that would indubitably illuminate their global dimension(s).


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