“God asked Abraham to do what to his what?!”

Anyone who has taught children about covenantal circumcision is familiar with the awkward and sometimes horrified reactions the practice inevitably evokes among them. But the challenge of catechizing giggling youth pales in comparison to the challenges Jesuit missionaries faced when they first landed in China in the late 16th century, a situation that Martin Scorsese’s recent flim, Silence, gives us a glimpse of.

It seems that the concept was foreign and perhaps even scandalous enough to the Chinese that the missionaries saw the need for liturgical adaptation. In 1670, following approval received in 1615 from Pope Paul V, a translation of the Roman Missal was published in classical Chinese. In the Missal, the feast on January 1st contains all the same readings as the Latin Roman Missal but bears a different title. Instead of the feast of the “Circumcision of the Lord,” the liturgical calendar names the day the “Establishment of the Holy Name of Jesus” (立耶穌聖名).

 

General Calendar of the 1670 Chinese Missal

The feast of the “Establishment of the Holy Name of Jesus” in the general calendar of the 1670 Chinese Missal. (no 352, Borgia, Fondo Cinese, Vatican Apostolic Library.)

 

There are no known records that tell us how Ludovico Buglio, S.J, the translator of the missal, came to the decision to rename the feast in this way, but here’s my attempt at an educated guess:

  1. The feast of the Holy Name of Jesus was celebrated since the 15th century (thanks John of Capistrano and Bernadine of Siena who promoted the cult of the holy name of Jesus) and became the titular feast of the Jesuits after the establishment of the order in 1540.
  2. As a Jesuit, Buglio probably recognized that the Gospel reading of the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus was exactly the same as that of the feast of the Circumcision of the Lord—Luke 2:21.
  3. Since the feast was only celebrated by religious orders in those days—it was only added to the general calendar in 1721 by Pope Innocent XIII—Buglio did not have to worry that a duplication in the calendar could cause confusion.

So why not rename the feast and emphasize its Christological dimension instead?

And there you have it. Some fine missionary creativity at work in the liturgical life of the 17th century Chinese Catholics.

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