Erenlai - Benoit Vermander (魏明德)
Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander lives in Shanghai. He teaches philosophy and religious anthropology at the University of Fudan.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014 00:00

Give Two Saints to China

In May 2013, the first stage of the cause for beatification of Matteo Ricci was completed in Macerata, Ricci's home diocese. The file is now with the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in the Vatican. Calls for the beatification and canonization of Ricci have been recently amplifying.

That Ricci amply deserves to be canonized constitutes a fact that is beyond doubt. The rectitude of his character, the unwavering patience, perseverance and humility he showed all along his Chinese journey the fruits reaped from his mission - all this amply testifies to the sainthood of a man who is very much respected and even loved by many Chinese.

The question is: should he be beatified alone, or does his cause open up opportunities for a new approach on such matters?

Ricci started his Chinese pilgrimage by publishing a little booklet entitled "On Friendship.' His beatification process should reflect the spirit under which he conducted his missionary endeavor.

In other words: do not beatify Matteo Ricci without beatifying Xu Guangqi at the same time.

There are three reasons for uniting the two friends into a common cause. First, Xu Guangqi is also a man whose life speaks of sainthood. Second, this will change the way missionary history is ordinarily presented. Third, this is by far the best gift Rome could make to the Chinese Church and China proper.

Xu Guangqi (1562-1633) is known in China as an outstanding scholar and public servant, the author of an encyclopedic treatise on agricultural techniques, a patriot who was witnessing the progressive weakening of the Ming dynasty and trying to defend it against aggressions, and a mathematician and astronomer. Still, these humane qualities would not been enough for proclaiming him a saint. So, what else does he have to show for himself? First, let us note that Xu fully involved himself into practical pursuits only after his conversion experience, the depth of which seems impressive: his baptism, in 1603, was prepared by long meditations over the Chinese Classics, repeated experiences of failure and grief, a dream, in 1600, of a temple with three chapels, interpreted in 1605 as an image of the Trinity, and deep-felt emotion when seeing an image of the Madonna with the Child in Nanjing. Once baptized, he brings his whole household to the new faith – not only relatives and servants depending upon him, but his own father as well. His descendants, especially his granddaughter Camilla Xu, will protect and foster the Shanghainese Christian community.

During the thirty years that separate his baptism from his death, Xu Guangqi continuously protects, advises and even guides the missionaries, while developing a spiritual life anchored in self-examination and dialogue among traditions. Among other testimonies, we possess the one of Longobardo, a Jesuit who was quite opposed to Ricci's acculturation strategy: through a kind of "counter enquiry" on Chinese converts' orthodoxy, Longobardo unwillingly lets us appreciate the depth and inner freedom of Xu's spiritual vision.

Moreover, the way Xu translated his faith into courageous and practical plans of action reminds us of Ricci's moral character: both men are less prone to write about their feelings than to engage into what they sense to be their calling. This may also recalls us of the beginning of the "Contemplation for attaining love" in the Spiritual Exercises: "Love ought to show itself in deeds over and above words – and love consists in interchange between two parties ... So that if the one has knowledge, he gives to the one who has it not." Such style of interchange nurtures the friendship that Xu developed with Ricci and inspires his attitude throughout his career. If Xu did not experience martyrdom, as Saint Thomas More did, his style, courage and achievements are very much reminiscent of this other great lay Catholic saint.

The joint beatification of Ricci and Xu would therefore change the way missionary history is often told – not a history of passive reception but rather of active collaboration. It would show that the first converts displayed exceptional openness and fortitude when working with missionaries in the building of the local church. It would also show that these converts brought in from the start the riches of their traditions. It will tell the faithful that all charismas are needed and must associate when grounding a Christian community into the life of the Spirit.

Finally, a common beatification would be much more meaningful for contemporary Chinese people – including Chinese Catholics – than the one of a lone missionary would be. It would send a message of friendship, collaboration, and spiritual equality. Even more importantly, the multifaceted figure of Xu - one of the "three pillars of the Chinese Church" (along with Li Zhizhao and Yang Tingyun) - can operate reconciliation among all sectors of the Church as well as between Church and society. Besides, the association of Xu and Ricci will speak of a Church that strives towards universality in the midst of a dialogue between local cultures and in the variety of life experiences.

It remains true that the present difficulties met by the diocese of Shanghai make the cause of Xu's beatification much slower and more complicated than the one of Ricci. But these very difficulties should prompt Rome to instruct the case with even more diligence – and there are many roads through which such case can be advanced. More than four hundred years have passed since Ricci went to Heaven. I am convinced that he would willingly wait a few years more, so as to be recognized Blessed and Saint in the company of his friend Xu Guangqi.

Also read eRenlai special Focus on the Legacy of Matteo Ricci :


Thursday, 27 February 2014 00:00

Some Thoughts about Pope Francis, Michel de Certeau and the Jesuit Intellectual Apostolate

In an interview given to the Jesuit cultural journals in August 2014 Pope Francis mentioned two thinkers he particularly likes: Henri de Lubac and Michel de Certeau. He has mentioned the latter several other times, particularly for his edition of the "Journal" of St Pierre Fabre, which inspired the Spanish edition he asked two Jesuits of his province to undertake.

The mention of Henri de Lubac might not be very surprising, as the author of 'Meditations on the Church" is certainly a Jesuit theologian universally respected and admired. The one he made of Michel de Certeau raises other questions. Famous among anthropologists and historians, Michel de Certeau may be a little less popular among Jesuits, and his style and thought have made him less consensual an author. But an exception to this rule should be made for... Latin America. Michel de Certeau taught on this continent many times, and several of his books were translated into Spanish at an early stage.

Michel de Certeau (1925 – 1986) wrote on history, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and the social sciences. He started by studying Jesuit mystics of the 16th and 17th centuries (especially Jean-Joseph Surin, and went on exploring the formation of history as an academic discipline, mobilizing his professional experience as a trained archive historian. He also tried to interpret the mystical authors he had been studying in historical perspective. The experience of the "night of the senses" or of "ecstasy" cannot be repeated or understood in the same way as in the past, but we are still experiencing the "departures' and "coming back" of God through the filter provided by social sciences, by psychoanalysis and by the institutional changes affecting the Church and society. In other words, we are still "travelers" and "migrants', but we travel through new landscapes and uncharted territories. Michel de Certeau was very sensitive to the inventiveness deployed by ordinary people in their everyday life (a dominant theme of The Practice of Everyday Life, probably his most influential book), and was thus able to speak about spiritual experience in its diversity and contrasts.

One can guess and feel what Pope Francis appreciates in Michel de Certeau's thought and works: a deep knowledge of Ignatian spirituality associated with a desire not to repeat the past but rather to be creatively inspired by it; a special attention given to the resources and ways of life of ordinary people; a deep sense of the crisis affecting Church institutions; and a love for cultural diversity and artistic sensitivity.

So far, four books of Michel de Certeau have been published into Chinese. An academic program is presently under construction for more and (better) translations. Several present-day thinkers consider that the resource offered by Michel de Certeau are nowadays more useful for understanding cultural and social patterns than the ones provided by more well known authors like, say, Michel Foucault. Here is a Jesuit author whose thought can and probably will grow influential in China during the years to come.

Actually, the influence of Michel de Certeau could be detected early in the words of Pope Francis. In 2012, in an interview to an Italian newspaper, the then-cardinal Bergoglio was declaring: "We have to avoid the spiritual sickness of self-referential church. It's true that when you get out into the street, as happens to every man and woman, there can be accidents. However, if the church remains closed in on itself, self-referential, it gets old. Between a church that suffers accidents in the street, and a church that's sick because it's self-referential, I have no doubts about preferring the former." The word "self-referential" often comes in the words spoken by Francis, and it refers to something that he perceives as a specific temptation within the Church. In my view, the risk-taking attitude is the only one that can connect into a meaningful dialogue 'culture' - or "cultures" – and faith(s).

"Culture" is not a luxury product, is not something like paintings or flowers that we would hang on the walls or put on the table after everything else is ready. "Culture" refers to the worldviews, languages, ways of translating emotions, identities and insights that are developed and perpetually transformed by individuals and communities. Cultures are one with the "languages" (oral, written, artistic, emotional) that shape communication among peoples, and also communication between peoples and the Church. The Word took flesh within a given culture, expressed Himself with the resources of this culture while He was also challenging it, and He asked us to continue the "translation work" that He started when He was "explaining" to us (literally: "making the exegesis" cf John 1,18) of the mystery of the Father. By doing so, by asking us to continue this "exegesis" of the divine mystery in various languages and contexts, Jesus encourages us to go from the "scattered diversity" of Babel to the "unitive diversity" of Pentecost. When we close on our own "clerical culture" we refuse to open up the walls of our house, we refuse to surrender ourselves to the fire, the wind and the diversity of tongues that constitute the Pentecostal gift. This is the perspective from which I propose to consider not only our "cultural apostolic works" but also our mission among cultures in its totality.

For a Jesuit, the intuition according to which we are evangelizers only if we are "evangelized' by the people with whom we meet remains a basic one. Reflecting on Church history teaches us that building up a position of "superiority' from which to preach without ourselves begin changed ultimately produces rotten fruits. I am often reminded for myself of the words of Jesus: "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are." (Mt 23, 15) In a context where Jesus reproaches the Pharisees to impose on people burdens impossible to bear, it certainly requires from us to examine whether we make our teaching, our living and our understanding of human situations one and the same endeavor. It happens that zealous "converts" generate more negative than positive energies. Preaching the faith and fostering a process of human growth need to be two interrelated endeavors. 'Pulling on the shoots to help the rice to grow" ruins the harvest.

A more personal note: when I include in a textbook of Latin and Roman Religion, as I did recently in Beijing, excerpts and commentaries of Tertullianus, Augustine, Minucius Felix, etc..., showing how their intellectual and spiritual elaboration was closely linked to the developments happening in the Roman Empire I may contribute in my very modest way to an "understanding of the faith" which is not direct evangelization but attempts to nurture a rooting of Christianity into sound intellectual and spiritual insights. The same could be said of what we do in a variety of fields. While not hesitating to be counter-cultural, we also try to make the Christian worldview better understood by contemporary culture, while trying to make the Church emerge from what is presently a kind of cultural ghetto.

Going one step further, I have no problem either in the fact of devoting - as I do - a large part of my time to the study of Chinese religions - as we could also invest in paleontology of biology. The Jesuit charisma should remain to be at the frontiers of knowledge, with a sense of gratuitousness - the very gratuitousness through which God created us - for it is the way we "praise God" by marveling at the work that his Spirit accomplishes throughout the course of natural and human history - a praise that remains on our lips even when we are confronted to realities that seemingly challenge our faith and introduce us into an 'intellectual dark night."

Thanks to Francis and to Michel de Certeau for helping us to become more sensitive, in everything we undertake and we reflect upon, to the wonderful gratuitousness of a God who delights in dwelling among us.

Illustration by Bendu.

Friday, 13 August 2010 16:03

Is Asia Pacific? Interreligious conflicts, dialogue and inventiveness in today’s Asia

There is no need to underline the dizzying diversity of Asia’s religious landscape. I do not intend here to attempt even a preliminary sketch of the patchwork of faiths and traditions that extend from Pakistan to Japan… I just would like to point out some general trends that have emerged in the last two or three decades, trends that have been partly reshaping the setting of Asia’s religions. Also, I would like to reflect on the challenges that these trends are creating. Furthermore, I’d like to suggest a few possible answers that Christianity could articulate in response to current developments, provided that Christians wish indeed to become “peacemakers” as the Sermon on the Mount calls them to be. Such responses may also inspire the ones brought forward by other religions. In any case, interreligious dialogue in Asia has become an endeavor that no religion can escape from, not only for spiritual reasons but also in order to achieve the following goals: (a) progressing towards national and ethnic reconciliation (b) ensuring religious freedom and other civil rights (c) tackling global challenges (dialogue of civilizations, ecology, struggle against consumerism, development of a global ethic.)

Revivalism and Identity Crisis

Revivalism has become a predominant religious trend. The clearest example is provided by the new vitality found by Islam in Asia, as is also the case in other parts of the world. Such fact is of utmost importance: Indonesia is the most populated Muslim nation in the world; Bangladesh and Pakistan have overwhelming Muslim majorities, and Malaysia has also a Muslim majority, though not as pronounced; India has a strong Muslim minority; and Muslim populations are located on conflict-prone frontier regions in the Philippines, Thailand and China.

The point here is that such “vitality” - experienced with different feelings according to the standpoint of the observer - encompasses an array of very different phenomena that have to be carefully distinguished:

- A kind of revivalist atmosphere stressing both Islamic and ethnic pride on a background of post-colonial sensitivity and widespread religious education, affecting the consciousness of Muslim populations all around Asia.

- Marginal violent movements carrying attacks, movements often fostered by international networks.

- Pervasive political strategies trying to impose and enforce Islamic laws and Islamic state apparatus; such strategies threaten the fabric of the secular state (which was a feature of post-colonial Asia) or lead some states that from the start were not altogether secular to become openly theocratic.

- At the same time, it is important to note that, since 2001. Muslin communities often suffer from accrued hostility and prejudices, especially in countries where they are a minority - and these prejudices can reinforce violence and deviant behaviors. Some of these communities also suffer from disadvantageous social background and economic conditions.

A few additional remarks are in order:

- Among these trends, the third one might be the most preoccupying one. In history, such strategies have led to the annihilation/assimilation of populations living in Muslin societies and professing other faiths. Strategies vary according to the size of the proportion of the Muslim population and the overall political situation. A distinction is to be made between Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia on the one hand, and the other countries of the region where Muslims are a vocal minority, sometimes with complaints rooted into national history. At the same time, further comparison between Bangladesh and Pakistan for instance might help us to assess better the role of cultural or international factors in religious attitudes: Bangladesh prides itself of a spirit of tolerance and accommodation seemingly lacking in Pakistan. This opposition of style between two Moslem countries leads back to an array of cultural and political factors deeply anchored into the collective memory of the two protagonists.

- In countries with Muslim majority, Christians of tribal origin generally constitute the most vulnerable population when it comes to forced conversion and discrimination. At the same time, Christians who are social leaders because of their wealth, occupation or educational level are often at the frontline of ongoing confrontations (this is patent in Pakistan).

- Of course, besides the Islamic revival, other sources of concern exist, which strongly influence interreligious conflicts and cooperation on the continent as a whole: authoritarian States manipulative of religions or even of interreligious dialogue; revivalist political/religious currents and organizations that might go with the assertion of a “national’ religion (in a Buddhist context, the phenomenon can be observed in Sri-Lanka); materialism and consumerism as they are cutting off the very roots of interreligious dynamics and dialogue.

- With the exception of Vietnam maybe, one notes everywhere a strong growth of Protestantism, most of the time under a fundamentalist and proselytizing garb, which often exacerbates tensions already existing. Proselytism also characterizes new religions, which are in the rise in many countries. As a consequence of this increase of religious communalism, a country like China is much less “syncretistic” than in the past and, witnesses a new assertiveness of believers who are conscious of clear-cut confessional divisions.


In a Buddhist temple in Bangkok (July 2010)

What is to be done?

1) In a context marked by potential or actual confrontations, but also by encounters and fluctuating frontiers, believers should not renounce the ideal of living and praying side by side as a privileged form of dialogue. Sometimes, and in different circles, there have been hesitations and reservations on a form of interreligious dialogue rooted into the fact of praying side by side. Still, one can reasonably think that God takes more pleasure in seeing people praying together than killing each other… Prayer often manifests itself as a kind of “revolutionary force”, and religious leaders are well advised to let and encourage people find their own way of associating their prayers in times and places of conflicts, natural disasters, or just for building up brotherly neighborhoods. Actually, what might be the most dangerous feature of violence is the fact that it exercises a kind of fascination that leads all people involved to a hardening of their own identity, fostering a chain of violent reactions - violent in spirit even when not in deeds. In this light, and even if such posture looks “idealistic”, the importance of a spiritual, even “mystical” approach towards interreligious understanding cannot be overlooked.

2) At the same time, it is impossible not to tackle directly the political dimension of interreligious encounters (understood as dialogue and tensions): ethnic or national revivalist movements and religious revivals are associated phenomena; ethnic, partisan and religious lines are often blurred. In the Catholic Church, a document of the Second Vatican Council, Dignitatis Humanae, has established the principle of religious freedom, associating it with a reflection on the mission, nature and duties of the state. At the same time, the text was strongly influenced by the American constitutionalism tradition. Asian religious leaders now need to clarify their stance about the secular state (which most of them tend to belittle or flatly reject.) Asian religions should debate of their political principles and, hopefully, agree on a few pressing tasks: (a) definition of the secular state, (b) pushing towards further regional union, encompassing a bill of rights emphasizing the spiritual roots of Asia (both their diversity and their strength), (c) working for equality among sexes (which might constitute the most important check against radical Islam on the long run)… Also going along this “political imperative”, arises the exigency to be always truthful about history. Interreligious and inter-ethnic encounters are made possible or are blocked by narratives that are shared or are conflicting. When they happen in a context where conflicting narratives are honestly recognized and retold, such encounters operate as a healing of memories.

3) Asia is a region marked by an irreducible linguistic, cultural and religious diversity. Traditionally seen by Christianity as a practical and theological challenge, such diversity is actually a treasure that needs to be assessed, appreciated and interpreted. Peace-building is thus to be seen as an ongoing endeavor inseparable from the development of interreligious dialogue: both tasks are anchored into an interpretative process through which cultures, creeds and world-views are perpetually reshaped. On the long run, the “translation” of traditional languages and narratives that the in-depth meeting with the Other makes possible nurtures a creative reinterpretation of one’s spirituality and faith.

4) Value education and other actions conducive to a culture of dialogue must target in priority women and the youth, as these two sectors are the ones who are susceptible to foster in the future a less rigid and more compassionate social culture. Value education starts from existential requirements such as the importance of honesty, mutual respect and joy. Interreligious cooperation is actually anchored into the nurturing of basic values that, ideally, could and should be taught in the schools of a pluralistic secular state.

A “musical” metaphor might help us to ascertain what is at stake in such encounters: we all have different musical tastes, different “ears”, and yet we are called to do music together. What then will come out of our musical disagreements? At the end of the day, we cannot bet for sure on the kind of music that God likes and composes. Maybe He does not compose in the C scale or in B moll, maybe He composes a kind of serial or computer-generated music that goes through disharmonies and rhythmic breaks – music that we do not immediately appreciate. Creative music generally challenges our listening habits - and we can assume that God indeed is a creative composer.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009 00:29

Bodily pains

The spine, the neck, the back, and the eyes.

Sometimes the body aches so much that exhaustion is not far away. Soon our sleep patterns become disturbed, and we become easily irritable. We feel at loss, a vague fear is permeating our consciousness – what is happening?

I do not know how it works for other people, but, personally, I am slow at identifying my bodily pains. For days, I have a sense of unease, of discontent, of perplexity. It is after a few days of misery that I suddenly identify a specific problem: my eyes are dry, my shoulders ache because I have carried luggage too heavy for me, there is a bad cold already taking hold of my nose and my throat. Actually, such discovery comes with a sense of relief. I now know what to do, and suddenly, I rediscover my body. I see it as a friend, as someone to be pitied and cared for, someone who tells me in a gentle, subdued way that it is too long a time I have not noticed his existence. Truly, the body speaks, and what it says is often so simple and so true: “you just cannot forget about me…”

I am sure that everyone experiences in different ways his/her relationships with one’s body. I think that, for everyone, reflectively experiencing bodily pains is a kind of spiritual experience. When I have identified what I am suffering from, memories come back to my mind and I remember how I have been over-exerting (or over-indulging) myself. I remember some little traumas that have piled up and finally eroded my resistance. I recognize in a new way the fragile and splendid miracle that is my physical body and how much I misuse it. I thank God for still being alive when it seems that I mishandle what I have been given.

I think that an obscure force of self-destruction dwells in all of us. For some reason (or for no reason maybe) we work against our very existence. Overwork, substance abuse, excessive pessimism, self-pity, all these are expressions of the way we are an accomplice in our own decay. When we take the time to recognize these little ailments and bodily pains, and take the time to alleviate the stress put on us - we are asserting that there is another force working in us. A force that says “yes” to the life that has been given to us, a force that wants to make use of it for praising and serving the Giver.

We are lucky that bodily pains are like small voices scattered throughout the body, small voices that remind us of the obscure forces of destruction that are devouring us, small voices that suggest timidly to us to stop for a while and reflect on the life-power that inhabits our body and on the way we may choose to make it fructify.

Blessed I am because of my sore back and my dry eyes…

Thursday, 24 May 2012 00:00

The Beautiful and the Sublime

Man is an aesthetic animal. He takes interest and pleasure in the contemplation and appreciation of other men, living beings, objects, thoughts, shows, music, landscapes that strike his imagination, his memory and all his senses. He makes such appreciation a driving force of his inner life, which becomes infused by greater meaning through the exercise of his aesthetic faculties. The fact of appreciating beauty, and to be able to take time so as to let oneself be transformed by the contemplation of it also provides one with spiritual nourishment and insights. The transforming power of beauty has been recognized and celebrated in many forms throughout ages and cultures; but it is rooted into the capacity to take time out for silence and attentiveness. Therefore beauty is a fragile power, the appreciation of which is to be nurtured from one generation to another. And we have also to recognize that beauty is not purely immemorial: some forms of beauty will speak more to our senses and our understanding according to the age and milieu we live in.

But what is “beauty’” after all? Greek philosophers, and many thinkers after them, have generally drawn some kind of distinction between two kinds of aesthetic emotions, which can be roughly labeled as the “Beautiful” and the “Sublime.” “Beautiful” somehow refers to an aesthetic pleasure provoked by the understanding and mastery of the thing with which we relate: we appreciate the beauty of a musical piece because we realize how skillfully it has been composed, and we can compare it with other works; we admire the craftsmanship in the painting, the jewelry or the vase that is offered to our appreciation; we celebrate the beauty of the face of the loved one according to some aesthetic standard (the Romantic, the Modern, the Classical…) that have become intelligible to us through education, and travels. This is why it is sometimes so difficult to appreciate artworks that come from a culture utterly alien to ours.

The Sublime is an emotion awakened by a sense of mystery, by the sudden realization that we cannot master or understand how this particular thought, artwork or landscape has come to the light of the day. The emotion we experience has not been produced by the pleasure of recognizing aesthetic canons that we have learnt to master and appreciate, but rather by the overwhelming impression that the object we contemplate produces on our senses. The “Sublime” has to do with shock and sometimes with terror, with the struggle between life and death, with the primal forces that work within our inner being and around us. Somehow, “Beauty’ is deeply human, while the “Sublime’ confronts us to what is beyond and behind us: the Animal from which we come from, and the Divine in which we aspire to be transformed.

The whole spectrum of our aesthetic emotion speaks of the different strata that compose our humaneness – the strive for reason, and the one to go beyond or behind reason; the pride we take in being humans entrusted with the task of dominating nature; our potent and unconscious recollection of the fact that we come from the breast of the very nature that we colonize, and our aspiration towards the Divine who made us what we are and still who calls us to trespass the boundary of our selves.


Drawing by Bendu


Monday, 11 October 2010 12:19

Farewell, 雷公 and 老馬!


Within a few days of each other, two good friends of Renlai, who were also towering missionary figures of Taiwan, have left us. Their life accomplishment deserves to stay with us in memory. It is with emotion and gratitude that we remember these two French Jesuits who both gave more than fifty years of their life to Taiwan and its people


Fr Jean Lefeuvre went peacefully to Heaven on the evening of Sep. 24, 2010 at the Cardinal Tien Hospital, Taipei. Born in France, in 1922 雷公 (as he was called by his Taiwanese friends) entered the Society of Jesus in 1940, and was ordained to the priesthood in 1952 at St. Ignatius Church, Shanghai by Msgr. Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei. In his book, “Les enfants dans la ville” (The children in the town) he has left a vivid description of this troubled period for the Church in China.

After arriving in Taiwan Fr. Lefeuvre became a founding member of the Taipei Ricci Institute, and worked closely with Fr. Yves Raguin. He became a world authority on oracle inscriptions, and later, on bronze inscriptions as well. He published several catalogues of oracle inscriptions as well as several learnéd articles and research tools on this very specialized field of knowledge. Fr. Lefeuvre was probably the most important collaborator and author of the “Grand Ricci” dictionary, in charge of its etymological section. He leaves a completed manuscript of a Dictionary of Bronze Inscriptions, which will be published after the due process of revision.

He was also a pastor, founder of several Christian communities, and exercised an far-reaching influence on the Taiwanese church. In the “Aurora Center”, which he directed for decades, he was the first to welcome Taizé-style prayer groups.

Fr. Lefeuvre was passionate about bronze inscriptions. He saw in them the most ancient testimony of the concepts of “territory” and “ancestors’, central in the development of Chinese thought. His research made him also very sensitive to the spirit of popular religion, and he surprised many Taiwanese by his deep insight about the significance of Tudigong (土地公) or Mazu (媽祖) in the Taiwanese religious psyche. It is in these ways that one can call him a pioneer of inculturation.

Though handicapped during his last years by the loss of his hearing and the partial loss of his sight, he worked indefatigably until the end. Fr. Lefeuvre is mourned by members and friends of the Taipei Ricci Institute and Renlai. His absence will be deeply felt by all of us.


The departure of an advocate of inter-faith dialogue

poulet-mathis_photoA few days later, on September 30, it was another very close friend of Renlai, Fr. Poulet-Mathis (馬天賜) who left us. 馬天賜 was born in Strasbourg, France, in 1927. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1945, was ordained to the priesthood on July 30, 1958 and then came to Taiwan. He worked first as a student chaplain in Taichung and in FuJen. However, it was to be in interreligious dialogue that he found his true calling. 馬天賜 was friends with people of all religious backgrounds in Taiwan, especially with a great number of Buddhist masters. One can say that he was the most active and well-known among the clerics engaged in inter-faith dialogue in Taiwan. He had a keen enthusiasm for the variety of ways though which men look for the Absolute and their true nature; he was always anxious to hear about the specific research and questions of others. He cultivated friendship in the spirit of Mateo Ricci, and was faithful to his friends without any reservation. He also served as Jesuit delegate for inter-faith dialogue for the whole of East Asia.

His continuous travels and labors affected his health, and his last years were painful ones. He left us in peace, and the memory of a man of much sensitivity, always concerned by the welfare of the people around him will stay with us.

Farewell, 雷公 and 老馬! You have been faithful servants of God and great lovers of the earth of Taiwan. For everything you have given us, we thank you… and we confide you to the love and mercy of the God whom you followed all your life.



Tuesday, 20 April 2010 19:27

“Found in Translation” Matteo Ricci’s lexicographic inheritance is alive

“Grand Ricci”, Matteo Ricci and Xu Guangqi, Guests of Honor in Shanghai

• On May 11, 2010, the digital edition of the Grand Ricci, the largest Chinese-foreign language dictionary in the world, was unveiled in Shanghai.

• This event took place on the date of the four hundredth anniversary of the death of Matteo Ricci (May 11, 1610), pioneer of cultural interaction between China and the West.

• Scholars invited to address the newly founded “Xu Guangqi-Matteo Ricci Dialogue Institute” at Fudan University joined the “Association Ricci” for the May 11 event, celebrating a new era of intercultural dialogue founded on the mutual appreciation of the diversity of our tongues and traditions.

Friday, 01 November 2013 14:39




Thursday, 24 October 2013 14:36

A Tale of Four Philosophers

I teach in a School of Philosophy that occupies four floors of a very tall university building. Each of these floors is graced with the statue of a famous philosopher. In ascending order: Marx, Confucius, Plato and Kant. Within the school, the saying goes like this: Marx occupies the lowest floor because he speaks of the infrastructure - of the material basis of life, society and production. Confucius follows, for his realm is the one of ordinary life and moral conducts. Plato is the one who deals with Concepts. And Kant is at the top because he is concerned with the Sublime...

One will note that no woman is offered as a model. Philosophy remains very much a male-dominated discipline. I also noticed that, except for Kant, all philosophers exhibited here display a most majestic beard. Confucius, Marx and Plato have very different beard styles, but the abundance of their facial hair seems to function as a marker of their wisdom. The ethereal nature of Kant's Sublime mat explain for his different fashion statement... In any case, these four figures give students and visitors a very institutionalized view of what Philosophy is about: it is a serious and technical discipline – a male thing – that needs to be taught and transmitted with due solemnity.

Fortunately, my colleagues' teaching style is often much more inventive, fun and varied than you would think when just looking at these ghostly statues. And, even if women are indeed a tiny minority among us, the department head is a woman. If I make an attempt at self-criticism I should also note that, to the best of my knowledge, I am one of only two professors who are displaying a beard. Therefore, we are probably the ones who perpetuate stereotypes on what Philosophy is about...

But I do want to break stereotypes! Although I very much admire the writings of canonical philosophers, I also believe that their study does not constitute an end in itself, but rather a mean for learning how to think by oneself, ask questions coming from an acute contact with the Self and with the contemporary world, and give answers anchored in one's experience and personal language. And I also believe that the study of ancient texts is only one of the ways to gain in inner freedom and acuity of thought. For instance, teaching philosophy to little children, letting oneself be surprised by their questions and answers helps one to progress in this direction. Pondering slowly over one's life discoveries, or entering into a new cultural context, so as to learn to see the world from the perspective of the Other are also channels through which to develop a truly philosophical mind.

Philosophy is first about slowing down – and it is about not taking anything for granted. Sometimes, when we reflect about the differences in lexicon and syntax that exist from one language to another we experience that our worldview is a construct, a product of our language and education, and we are led to dig deeper, to ask ourselves what the language we use reveals and hides about the nature of the reality we are living in. In other words, everyday life and dialogue provide us with endless possibilities to think philosophically, as long as we are ready to give some time to our fugitive thoughts and intuitions, to ponder over them, and to share and discuss them with like-minded spirits. When I teach philosophy, I try to make my students realize that they have the power to liberate their thinking from clichés and mental habits. If they experience Philosophy as fresh, novel, stimulating, they will be ready to exchange with Marx, Plato, Confucius or Kant not as you do with majestic father-like figures but rather as friends and mentors. The reflective and creative power shown by the thinkers of the past is the one still hidden within us, and the words and concepts they have used for expressing their fundamental experience are transmitted to us so as to awaken our capability of creating images, notions and thought experiments that truly resonate with our world and our time. Philosophers need to grow wise, but they are never allowed to grow old.

Painting by Bendu

Tuesday, 25 June 2013 11:19

After the Quake: Rituals in North Western Sichuan

Rituals organize and symbolize a way of living together. Through the enactment of rituals, a community expresses its fear, its solidarity and its longings. In traditional societies, performing rituals enables people to organize time and space into a meaningful universe, to renew their commitment to the group to which they belong, and to cement an alliance among them, with nature and with the supernatural.
The variety of ritual forms is astounding. It reflects the richness of cultural forms, artworks and humane inventiveness. Among the ethnic minorities who, all together, account for almost ten percent of China's population, those living in the southwest may offer the widest repertoire of ritual performances. Caring for the souls of the dead, exorcising ghosts so as to cure illnesses, rejoicing at marriages, New Year or at harvest time. The four rituals mentioned here all take place in Sichuan province, among people of Yi, Qiang and Ersu ethnic origins.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013 18:48

Little Umbrella

As Little Umbrella opened her eyes for the first time, she found herself hanging on a hook near the exit door of a bright and spacious convenience store. The space around her was filled with toothpaste, sandwiches or cold drinks, and was enlivened with the concert made by tinkling coins, automated musical doors and cashiers’ greetings. The lights and the voices both hurt and stimulated her senses, not yet used to the hubbub of the world.

The rain was pouring outside… It was not long before a middle-aged lady came into the shop and bought Little Umbrella, finding her the cutest of all the umbrellas gracing the shop with the rainbow of their colors. Balancing in the streets over the head of the lady, Little Umbrella felt very joyful: she had found someone to whom she could dedicate her existence, making sure that her owner, well protected from the rain, would never catch a cold. The lady had a soft and firm grasp on her handle. Little Umbrellas looked at storefronts together with her friend and possessor, while waving to the other umbrellas nearby – and in that kind weather there were many, many of them.

The lady got into a bus, and carefully folded Little Umbrella, whom she placed at her side. Then, both the lady and Little Umbrella fell half asleep. The lady suddenly woke up just when the bus was reaching her usual stop, and she went off in such a haste that she forgot Little Umbrella on the seat... When Little Umbrella opened up her eyes, the lady was not here anymore. Instead, an old man was looking at her with perplexity. She was certainly a cute and brand-new umbrella, but she was unfit for a man, especially a man of his age. Still, he took her with him, and soon they both arrived at his house.

This was a large house, a house for an extended family. The old man fetched his granddaughter and gave her Little Umbrella. The little girl was overjoyed and brought her to her bedroom. She was duly introduced to Teddy Bear, to the dolls, the giraffe, the miniature lion and the she-duck. That night, lying at the foot of the bed, Little Umbrella felt deeply happy, and she entered naturally into all little umbrellas’ dreamland.

They spent a very happy weekend together. The little girl was incessantly folding and unfolding her umbrella, posing with her as a ballerina or a princess. The following Monday was one of these Rainy Mondays, and the girl went to school with Little Umbrella, who arose much envy from the girls’ schoolmates. Still, on the last day of the same week, it was a boy – the bully of the class – who stole Little Umbrella from the schoolbag of her young owner, and started to parade with her on the streets, handling her brutally, and threatening people with her as if holding a sword.

One day, he went too far: in a fit of rage he raised his weapon against his mother. She immediately confiscated Little Umbrella, without ever asking where she came from and how she happened to be in the possession of the boy. The mother was a busy and rather impatient woman, with little time left for her son. She put Little Umbrella deep into the big bag that she always carried, and took her in all her travels, from the plane to the hotel, from an appointment to a business meeting, unfolding her from time to time when the rain was really too strong. Handled without care, treated with much indifference, Little Umbrella was not feeling happy at all, but she did discover the world, and grew both in weariness and wisdom.

It just so happened that, after one of these intercontinental travels she was now used to undergoing, Little Umbrella found herself on a chair, in an outdoor café of southern Europe; in a sleepy back street of an ancient city. The storm had now receded. Her owner, exhausted by her unceasing business trips and lost in her thoughts, had paid the bill, and she was now leaving the place without turning back - forgetting Little Umbrella on the chair where she had absent-mindedly placed her after the rain. The cat of the café slowly approached her.

She was a good and playful cat, who knew how to use her paws. She made Little Umbrella fall from the chair, took her cautiously with her teeth and transported her into the adjacent garden. With a few skillful moves, she unfolded Little Umbrella, kept the handle between her pawns, and laid down under her shadow, with a purr of satisfaction. Little Umbrella felt happier she had ever felt, standing right between the cat and the sun, and dancing to the rhythm of a tune coming from the house bordering the garden.

From then on, the cat and Little Umbrella spent all their days together – the rainy days, the sunny days. The cat who was always holding the umbrella became so famous in the neighborhood that the café was adorned with a new post sign, showing the affectionate embrace of the two friends. But the cat and the umbrella were not concerned with their newfound glory, and, carefree, continued to enjoy the sun, the rain and their own company. And they lived happily ever after.

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