January 1st in the 17th century Chinese Liturgy


“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.


  1. It seems that the concept was foreign and perhaps even scandalous enough to the Chinese that the missionaries saw the need for liturgical adaptation.

    This is interesting.

    I don’t think — please correct me if I’m wrong — the concept of circumcision had similarly been “adapted” in the Chinese catechism which would’ve already been published by then.

    But liturgically, it was too “foreign” and too “scandalous” for the Chinese that its feast day had to be renamed.

    Admittedly, I don’t quite understand this reasoning. But more than that, I’m surprised that the 17th century Rome allowed such “missionary creativity.”

    1. @Elisabeth Ahn:
      You’re correct. The missionaries didn’t change or exclude the teaching. Luke 2:21 which has the word “circumcision” in it remained the Gospel for the day as per the translation of the bible. I have no doubt that Christians were taught the significance of covenantal circumcision according to the tradition.

      However, titles of feasts are a different genre. Many similar feasts bore different names in different places, and they have sometimes changed as doctrinal emphases shifted. The missionaries weren’t doing something innovative. Just as a headline for a news article can change the way the article itself is interpreted, a change in the name of the feast can tell us how the missionaries intended to position the theology of a feast to an audience even if we have to guess why.

      I don’t know if the teaching was “scandalous,” (hence the word “perhaps”) but it was most definitely a foreign one. The fact that the “feast of the Purification of the BVM,” another feast named after a Jewish practice was also changed in this Missal to “Presentation of the Lord in the Temple by the Blessed Mother” supports this argument. Maybe the two practices were a challenge for Jesuit missionaries who promoted themselves as coming from an advanced culture to suspicious Chinese literati who may perceive the practices as superstitious practices that only uneducated peasants engaged in. Or maybe Buglio changed the names simply to emphasize Christology rather than Jewish rituals for catechetical purposes. Another possible reason is that something as public as a liturgical calendar might do better in missionary lands if it used words that people could easily understand, rather than a concept that neophytes may have trouble explaining to others.

  2. “The Holy Name of Jesus” is very important to Chinese Catholics. In the archdiocese of Atlanta until a couple of months ago, the Chinese Catholic community did not have its own church. [The Korean Catholic community has two churches; the Vietnamese Catholic community also has two.] Now the Chinese Catholic community has a church campus of their own–though it has the status of a mission, not a parish–The Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Mission, with its own Chinese-speaking priest administrator.

  3. I think in 17th century Rome, the news was slow in moving and it must have been difficult for any missionary to promote a feast for which the majority reaction would be one of horror.

    Possibly the missionaries took their lead from the early Jews of the Council of Jerusalem and left the subject for another time which was met with relief. Acts 15:31.


    1. @Ed Nash:

      … a feast for which the majority reaction would be one of horror.

      am not an expert but knowing a bit about the Chinese history, I have some doubts about this.

      but, I’m dubious in general about the whole “those people wouldn’t get [something or other] so we must change [said something or other]” mentality of those who are not “those people,” so, there’s also that.

      ETA: Thank you, Audrey Seah, for your thoughtful response.

  4. Sorry Elisabeth. I was going off what my reaction is when I hear of other cultures’ practice of physical mutilation to bring religious or cultural significance to their lives.

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