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Christianity in China

The Visitor: André Palmeiro and the Jesuits in Asia

Liam Matthew Brockey. The Visitor: André Palmeiro and the Jesuits in Asia. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014. Paper. 498 pages.

hough I began reading this weighty volume only because a good friend had sent it to me, and I waded through many pages asking, “What does this have to do with Christianity in China today?,” I now believe that the story of André Palmeiro holds great relevance for both historians and those who seek to contribute to the growth of Christianity in China.

Briefly: Palmeiro’s visit to China at the end of the Ming dynasty came at a critical juncture in the Jesuit mission there. His personal career, the decisions he made about mission strategy, and the story of the first two centuries of Jesuit missions worldwide carry potent lessons for us now.

In an effort to fill a lacuna in research about the Jesuits, this biography of André Palmeiro is specifically concerned with “how the Society of Jesus functioned outside of Europe” (19). By narrating the career of one man in detail and with reference to his background, “this book restores depth and texture to the men of the early modern Society of Jesus” (19). Palmeiro’s life provides a lens through which to see more clearly the second-and third-generation Jesuit missionaries in Africa, India, Southeast Asia, and East Asia. They were the most widely scattered and controversial of Roman Catholic missionaries, and since they worked closely with secular powers, both European and local, they open up to us a view of early modern European expansion into newly discovered lands.

In other words, the work is “an attempt to describe the life of one man in a variety of different early modern contexts with the goal of enhancing understanding of the period” (20).
“One political context will receive considerable attention: the Portuguese Empire in Maritime Asia” (20). Just as we cannot understand the Jesuits without regard to their place in the empire, so the colonial administration and its complex relationships with Roman Catholic clergy, members of other orders, local rulers, and foreign merchants cannot be understood without knowledge of the important, and sometimes central, role of the Jesuits.

Brockey draws heavily upon the mass of letters that Palmeiro penned to the superior general of the Jesuits, which provide detailed information not only about the affairs of the order which the Visitor was charged to oversee and strengthen, but also about customs, geography, politics, and general life of the peoples among whom the missionaries served. This correspondence is placed within a framework of wide-ranging scholarship and critical analysis.

The book’s two-part structure “reflects the boundaries of the Portuguese Empire in the early modern period and the place of the Society of Jesus within it” (22). The first part discusses “Palmeiro’s early years and his academic career in Portugal in addition to examining his two terms as visitor in South Asia, a combination that underscores the common structures of Jesuit life in these regions...The second with the final nine years of Palmeiro’s life, the time he spent as visitor of the East Asian missions.” Though he lived in Macao for most of that period, Palmeiro undertook an extensive journey into late Ming China, and his duties obliged him to direct his attention far beyond the boundaries of Portugal’s empire to Southeast Asia, China, and Japan, where the king of Portugal had no power and where missionaries survived only at the pleasure of the regional ruler.

The Society

Founded in 1540 by Ignatius Loyola, the Society of Jesus quickly became the vanguard of the Counter-Reformation, as Rome sought to regain territories lost to the Protestants. Focusing on education and mission, both in Europe and later overseas, the Jesuits sought to educate the sons of the elite from an early age so that they might become loyal Roman Catholics. They were known not only for their superior educational equipment, but also for their zeal in taking their version of Christianity into both the citadels of power and the rural, unreached places of the world.

Like other religious orders, the Jesuits took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to their superiors. More than other orders, and reflecting the military background of the founder, the Society was organized and governed like an army. They saw themselves as engaged in spiritual warfare – a counter-offensive in Europe and an advance corps of elite warriors for the kingdom of God in newly-explored and colonized regions of America, Africa, India, and the Far East.

As spiritual soldiers for the cause of Christ as they understood it, the Jesuits became as well known as the mendicant orders, such as the Franciscans and Dominicans, for sacrificial service, long journeys, simple living, unremitting toil, great courage, and often heroic endurance of suffering and even martyrdom. The colossal agonies of the Jesuits and their followers in Japan frame the story of André Palmeiro, whose last days were filled with anguish over the fate of his brothers in Japan and the apostasy of one of them.

Their educational system was rightly famed for its rigor and comprehensiveness. Starting as young boys, prospective brothers entered into a curriculum that included reading, writing, and religion; Latin, in which students were expected to speak and compose essays; grammar; the Greek and Roman classical authors and the Greek language; and rhetoric. Later, the students were instructed in philosophy, canon law, casuistry, mathematics, rhetoric, science, and theology. Finally, their education was capped by a three-year course in the “arts,” which included logic, metaphysics, Aristotelian philosophy, and natural philosophy (that is, mathematics, physics, and other sciences). Finally, they were allowed to study theology, the “queen of the sciences.”

For instructors in the Jesuits’ colleges, further academic work was required: Theological studies included moral theology and speculative theology, with Thomas Aquinas’ works the chief source. The entire system followed the massive synthesis of secular and sacred learning constructed by Aquinas and naturally fostered a spirit of accommodation between Christian and pagan thought. Aquinas believed that one could move from general revelation, seen in the created order and in the finest products of the human mind, to special revelation, found in the Scriptures and in the traditions of the Church.

Like their fellow Roman Catholics everywhere, Jesuits acknowledged the authority of the Church, with the Pope as its head and spokesman. They continued the medieval rites and rituals against which the Reformers had so strenuously objected, including seven sacraments (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, in common with Protestants, but also Confirmation, Penance, Marriage, Extreme Unction, and Ordination to the priesthood); confession to a priest; Masses for the dead; the veneration of Mary and the saints, to whom prayers were made; adoration of relics, such as a piece of the True Cross which Palmeiro treasured; fasting on stated days; the observance of feasts to commemorate the saints; adoration of the Host; communion in one kind only; sprinkling holy water on people and places to consecrate them; the use of the crucifix as a sacred object with mighty powers; indulgences; the use of icons and carved images in worship and private devotion; a celibate clergy; self-flagellation to atone for sins; and more.

You see all of these in the narrative of Palmeiro’s long career, for he was a typical Roman Catholic of his time.

Unlike other religious orders, however the Jesuits were noted not only for their educational attainments, but also for their pragmatism and pursuit of power. That is, they eagerly sought the favor of political rulers and did not hesitate to employ a variety of means to gain their objectives. Believing that the conversion of the prince would lead to the Christianization of the land, or that at least his favor would ensure their continued right to reside in a country where Europeans had no power, they endeavored to ingratiate themselves with kings and courtiers through expensive gifts, adherence to the local code of etiquette, mastery of the language, and their knowledge of Western science and engineering.

Trained in mechanics and even military architecture and ordnance, they directed the construction of fortifications and the manufacture and deployment of artillery in places like Ming China. Indeed, their residence in Beijing was finally secured when Jesuits accurately predicted an eclipse, thus demonstrating their superior prowess in astronomy and displacing the Chinese royal astronomers in correcting the calendar, essential to the determination of proper days for rituals.

This close interplay between religious and secular activities and relationships shows up constantly in The Visitor, for Palmeiro combined his duties to oversee the internal affairs of the Society with his position as the senior representative of his order, and thus a major personage in the political and ecclesiastical administration of Portugal’s colonies.

Though the Jesuits insisted upon strict conformity to the constitution and detailed rules of the order, they also granted wide latitude for personal discretion and creativity to their well-trained, highly motivated, and often innovative missionaries in far-flung locations where direction from Rome was impracticable. Sometimes this policy gave space for innovations that sparked vigorous controversy. As Visitor, essentially acting on behalf of the director general, Palmeiro was obliged to navigate the tricky waters of missiology, strong personalities, and intra-Society conflicts on two such occasions, in India and in China. For our purposes, the accommodation strategy of Matteo Ricci and his followers, which later exploded into the protracted “Rites Controversy” that led to the expulsion of all Roman Catholic missionaries from China, occupies the greater interest and will be explored below.

The Visitor

Palmeiro began his long career with the Jesuits as a young student in one of their premier colleges in Portugal. His studies followed the usual course and culminated first in his ordination as a full brother in the order, and then in the conferral of rank as a professor. He taught grammar and rhetoric; then philosophy, moral theology ethics, and the sacraments; and finally speculative theology. Finally, he was given the responsibility over another Jesuit college in Portugal, where he exercised pastoral oversight, saw to the material affairs of the college, tried to resolve conflicts, and served as an important emissary for the Society to both ecclesiastical and secular officials. All this prepared him further for his role as Visitor in Asia.

The Visitor in India

At the age of forty-nine, Palmeiro was ordered to go to India as Visitor for the Society, with plenipotentiary powers to act as the agent of the director general in Rome. He sailed first to Goa, the capital of Portugal’s Indian imperial holdings. Later he would travel to the east coast of India to inspect the work of Jesuits there and on nearby islands. All the characteristics of early modern Roman Catholicism and the early Jesuits mentioned above play major parts in the narrative: Palmeiro exemplified Tridentine Roman Catholic piety; enforced the strict rules of the Society; promoted education through the Jesuit colleges overseas; tried to provide material resources to the far-flung missionaries; mediated between members of the Society whose personalities, ministry styles, and convictions about missiology caused sharp and sometimes nearly violent conflicts; and served as the Society’s emissary to secular and ecclesiastical authorities. The close connection between the Roman Catholic hierarchy and political power seen earlier in Europe shows up again in Asia.

Palmeiro's “Territory” extended as far west as Ethiopia, where Jesuits had converted the emperor to Roman Catholicism, and were in the process of replacing the local Christian faith with their religion. In particular, they strove for the standardization of the liturgy, insisted upon Papal supremacy, and struggled to bring about a decision by Emperor Susenyos (b. 1572, r. 1606–32) to “adopt the Roman rite” (176). Their eventual failure exposed the weakness in this Jesuit strategy of working “from top to bottom,” a strategy they also employed in China.

One controversy that is particularly pertinent to Palmeiro’s work in China involved the hotly debated practices of one Jesuit Nobili, who had not only adopted the dress of an Indian Brahman, but had also incorporated some Hindu Brahmin religious terms and practices in his missionary approach to them. Palmeiro had no problem with Nobili’s use of dress and other externals to become “all things to all men,” but he did question some of the accommodations that touched upon theology.

The Visitor in China

In 1626 Palmeiro proceeded to his next assignment, the “Province of Japan,” which encompassed Japan, China, and areas of Southeast Asia, including today's Vietnam. In these regions, however, Portugal had no colonial holdings, so Jesuits were entirely dependent upon the pleasure of the local rulers for residence and freedom to work. Palmeiro made his base in Macao, which, though nominally a Portuguese-ruled area, existed in that way only at the allowance of the emperor, whose agents outside the city walls kept a close watch on what went on there.

In Macao Palmeiro encountered the same problems he had dealt with in India: personality conflicts; competition and strife among different Roman Catholic orders (which in one notorious case led to a deadly riot); a shortage of material resources and men; local resistance to his authority when his views differed from those with more experience in a particular area; and the declining power of Portugal, whose navy was being challenged by Dutch fleets.

Merchants in Macao helped subsidize the Jesuits’ work there and throughout East Asia; in return, the Jesuits served as “diplomatic and economic mediators with indigenous authorities and traders” (198). As Visitor for the Jesuits, whose numbers and skills made them “a major political and economic force in the colony” (198), Palmeiro once again found himself near the center of political, economic, and religious power.

Not surprisingly, Roman Catholic missionaries’ close identification with Portugal presented perhaps the most dangerous challenge, since they were assumed to be agents of a foreign power whose intentions were either suspect or known to be aggressive. Already, persecution under a hostile government in Japan, where the Jesuits’ “strategy of intermingling politics and economics with their religious aims led to their being viewed as adversaries by the military hegemons” (200), had reduced the Jesuit work there to a mere shadow of what it had been before. Even worse was to come during Palmeiro’s time as Visitor. To overcome this obstacle, Jesuit missionaries either tried to hide their nationality or sought ways to make their religion more palatable to local rulers.

For our purposes, Palmeiro’s involvement in the Vice-Province of China carries the most interest. Though we can see all the major themes mentioned previously repeated here, his judgment concerning the controversial “accommodationist” strategy and tactics of the Jesuits in Beijing is most pertinent today.

Following Matteo Ricci, Jesuits in Beijing and elsewhere adopted the dress of Chinese scholars so that they could gain access to this influential elite. They studied the Confucian classics and criticized Buddhism and Daoism in support of Confucianism (which many now prefer to call “Ruism,” since “Confucianism” is largely a construct created by the Jesuits themselves). More than that, believing that the ceremonies in honor of Confucius were merely secular and honorific rites and not religious worship, they declared that Chinese Christian converts could participate in these rituals.

In their efforts to win approval and to attract the interest of both the scholars and the Court, the Jesuits in China presented very costly gifts, followed the usual rules of etiquette, and introduced Western science, especially astronomy. This strategy was a major, and often leading, partner in their campaign to gain permission to reside in the capital city and in the entire country. They had gained a few converts among the scholar elites, “but the strategy of engaging mandarins had been met with ambivalent results, and had even played a role in an outbreak of persecution in 1616” (201).

One major source of controversy was the Jesuit choice of “Shangdi” as the proper appellation for the Christian God. They had studied the Classics and believed that Chinese notions of "Shangdi" corresponded neatly with biblical descriptions of God.

The Jesuits’ approval of participation in rites honoring Confucius would grow into the “Rites Controversy,” which would eventually lead to the expulsion of not only the Jesuits, but also all Roman Catholic missionaries, from the Middle Kingdom in the eighteenth century.

During Palmeiro’s year-long visit to China, which involved traveling more than three thousand miles, he heard arguments from both supporters and detractors of Ricci’s approach. As in India, Palmeiro did not disapprove of most elements of their methods, but he did issue a judgment about the proper translation for the biblical names for God. In his opinion, which carried full authority, “Shangdi” was not to be used, precisely because it resonated so well with Confucian scholars. In other words, what others considered to be the strength of this name – its complex of connotations within traditional Chinese Confucian writings – represented for Palmeiro its fatal flaw.

Like others before, during, and after his time, Palmeiro believed that “Shangdi” carried too many meanings, some of which, indeed resembled the God of the Bible, but some of which did not. That lack of total overlap made it the wrong choice as a name for the God of the Bible. Palmeiro agreed with the judgment of critics within the Society in China that Ricci “had erred by using terms and phrases that his Chinese readers would associate with their religious traditions, thereby identifying Christian concepts with paganism” (219).

Being a practical man as well as a theologian, the Visitor also wondered why “there were so few Christians despite the presence of Jesuits within the Ming Empire for forty years ‘with so much labor and expense.’” In other words, why had there been so many interchanges that “resulted only in ‘conversation and not conversion’” (216)?

The Jesuits in Beijing had tried their best to hide from the Visitor the religious aspects of Confucian belief and practice. For example, they did not allow him to visit the temple of Confucius in Beijing, lest he observe the obviously pagan ceremonies conducted there in what appeared to be worship of the Sage. Despite their best efforts, however, they failed to persuade Palmeiro that Confucian scholars were purely secular in their outlook, a judgment that has been shown in recent times to have been inaccurate from the beginning.

In The Visitor, we find a nuanced, balanced, informed critique of the accommodationist approach of Ricci and his followers. Brushing aside caricatures of their critics as ignorant outsiders, the author demonstrates that the most stringent objections came from within the Jesuits in China, men who also had learned the language, culture, literature, and religions of the land, and who still considered Ricci’s strategy risky and unnecessary. Brockey shows, quite helpfully, that Ricci’s use of metaphor, while quite effective in speaking to the poetic sensibilities of Chinese scholars, was “not the most reliable tool” in the rhetorician’s kit (289).

As he reflected upon what he had seen and heard in China, Palmeiro “questioned whether the maturing Chinese mission still needed to rely so heavily on ambiguous translations and metaphors” (290). He realized that formidable obstacles faced Christian missionaries in China, including widespread xenophobia, a lack of clear permission to reside in China, and an excess of timidity on the part of the missionaries” (292). He encouraged them “to preach the sacred gospel more freely” (295) and “objected to ‘political’ behavior,” that is, dissimulation “which sacrificed virtue for expediency and constituted a way of masking one’s true intentions so as to avoid giving offense” (296).

Palmeiro understood that, while reception of the gospel among the lower classes had been far greater than among the literati, there was a danger that “we might appear to be gathering these plain folk into our hands in order to incite riots” (292).

In dealing with the elites, he said, missionaries should be careful lest they spend too much time talking about science or mathematics; these should be merely conversation starters and should always serve “to draw Chinese minds to the Creator of the universe, not to creation” (301). Nor did Palmeiro think that the similarities between Christianity and Confucianism so stressed by some missionaries were more than superficial. Fundamentally, the two belief systems were divided by huge differences, not only in beliefs about a supreme being, but even in their moral standards. He contrasted behaviors which Confucianism tolerated with biblical norms and found the disparity too great to be elided by those zealous to emphasize points of contact.

Even practically speaking, if a prospective convert did not understand the essential differences between his culture and the Christian faith and realize just how great a cost conversion would entail, any profession of faith would be built on a weak foundation. Any truths in Confucianism came from being created in God’s image; “coincidence was hardly a reliable ally in the battle for conversions” (310).

Finally, Palmeiro “placed the blame for the low number of baptisms in China on those Jesuits who persisted” in this accommodationist approach (310).

Later, when overseeing the work of Jesuits in Southeast Asia and in China, Palmeiro would apply similar standards in the realm of ethics, insisting the catechumens be instructed in the Christian teachings on marriage and not allowed to marry non-Christians or engage in polygamy. He did not give in to the argument that this rigorist position would turn people away from the faith, nor did he approve of allowing laxity in Christian religious practices. Insisting upon the indissolubility of Christian marriages produced communities whose example attracted pagans to Christianity.


The Visitor describes in gristly detail the cruel persecution and torture suffered by thousands of Japanese believers and many Jesuit missionaries and narrates with sadness the events surrounding Palmeiro’s death, which was brought on not only age, fatigue, and the stresses of his job, but also by grief over the fate of his brothers in Japan and his own severe, even excessive, self-mortification to atone for his sins. The book closes with a brief survey of the ephemeral results of the once-flourishing work of the Society, which “crumbled before the nineteenth century” (429). A major reason for the general failure of the Society’s enterprise was its dependence upon Portuguese military and economic power and its close connection with politics in every country.

Once I began The Visitor, I could not put it down. Though the scope of the narrative goes far beyond my area of interest, I was held by the attractiveness of the main character, the drama of Jesuit missionary life in Maritime Portugal, and the relevance of the major themes to the task of bringing the Christian message to China in the twenty-first century.

Palmeiro’s balanced and prudent evaluation of controversial “accommodationist” missionary practices remains instructive for us today. Christians, including foreigners, may use externals, such as dress, to make connections with local peoples – as J. Hudson Taylor would do centuries later – but the core message must not be compromised by confusing, or perhaps even syncretistic, adoption of non-biblical terms and names. For my assessment of the debate about the proper translation of biblical names for God, see

While not disputing the strategy of working among the scholar elites, critics of the Jesuits’ methods of accommodation (a method which some nineteenth-century missionaries like Timothy Richard admired and imitated) can still raise the following question: why does an emphasis upon secular education and religious accommodation lead to so few converts to Christianity? The overwhelming proportion of Christians in China came not from such approaches, but from presentations of the “simple” biblical message of forgiveness of sins and radical personal transformation through faith in the sacrificial death, resurrection, and present ministry of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. This is true also for the urban intellectuals who have become Christians in such large numbers since the 1980s.

For this and other reasons, Brockey’s volume has value for not only historians but also practitioners. His rare combination of a “big picture” panorama and minute details of every sort, expressed in an elegant and sometimes powerful style, make The Visitor a work to be studied and enjoyed by professional scholars and educated readers alike.

(For more thoughts on the possible implications of this book for Christian ministry among Chinese today, go to

G. Wright Doyle