Today marks the death of Alessandro Valignano (1539-1606), the Italian missionary who oversaw Jesuit activity in Asia for over thirty years. He was among the first Europeans to master the language. It was Valignano who sent the great Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci to China, but his real ambition was the conversion of Japan, a country whose culture he greatly respected. His approach there was to evangelize the culture from within, starting at the top. Hence Jesuits working there assumed the status of Zen priests, the most respected of the local clergy. He also nurtured native vocations (something that not all missionaries did) and started a novitiate for Japanese candidates. European Jesuits spent two years in language studies before entering Japan. By the 1590’s, they had produced a Japanese grammar and a dictionary, as well as several books in Japanese. By the 1630’s, however, the mission ended as Japanese rulers eliminated all contact with the outside world. Missionaries were among the first casualties, and native Christians were forced to convert to Buddhism. Amazingly, though, when contact with the West was reestablished in the 1850’s, it was discovered that small Christian communities had kept the faith alive in spite of all restrictions, and with no priests. (A great book to read about the Jesuits in Japan is Shusaku Endo’s Silence, which Martin Scorsese is planning to film.)
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