The Dream of Catholic China

From the later sixteenth century until the end of the seventeenth, the Jesuit educational system was the most rigorous and effective in Europe. As one senior Jesuit wrote proudly in 1647, each Jesuit college was a “Trojan horse filled with soldiers from heaven, which every year produces conquistadors of souls.” Most of these young “soldiers,” before being assigned to their full-time studies in the Society of Jesus, would have spent several years learning the fundamentals of Latin and Greek grammar. They would then embark on a nine-year cycle of further work: two years of humanities, three years in the arts course, which focused on Greek philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy, and four years of advanced theology studies. This final four-year course consisted of two years of moral theology and casuistry, and two years of speculative theology. Those who completed this roster would normally be assigned to teach young novices for a few years before receiving their final advanced training and preparation for the priesthood.

During these protracted years of scholarly training and moral discipline, as Liam Brockey demonstrates by his skillful examination of Portuguese Jesuit archives, the future Jesuit priests were subject to constant evaluations and reviews from their superiors. These reviews were sent to Rome in batches every three years, and filed there in the headquarters of the Society of Jesus. As well as giving details of each young man’s family background, academic record, and physical health, the evaluations made more subjective estimates of the scholastics’ “ingenuity, judgment, prudence, practical experience, and academic proficiency,” along with a brief profile of their “humors,” as these were defined at the time: sanguine, melancholic, choleric, and phlegmatic.

The same Jesuit who in 1647 had defined his young college charges as being “conquistadors of souls” drew on a different metaphor to describe their period of prolonged nurturing, borrowing from Pliny’s description of the two-year gestation period needed by baby elephants. Just as these baby elephants in later life, he wrote, would charge into battle and strike fear into other creatures, so would the newly trained Jesuits be ready for action of the most demanding nature:

To travel the entire world, conversing with the most pertinacious heretics, dealing with the most dissolute sinners, breaching all boundaries regardless of danger to hear confessions, to preach to heathens, to dispute with Lutherans, to work with barbarians, grappling with the dangers of the whole world.

Brockey neatly matches his analysis of these archival Triennial Catalogues from Portugal with his examination of the contents of the seventeenth-century files known as the Indipetae—petitions to go to the Indies, a broad geographical term that also included missionary service in either Japan or China. Some of the young men were frankly in search of martyrdom, which could most assuredly be found in Japan, where the savage and thorough suppression of Christianity by the Tokugawa shoguns had made death for the Catholic faithful a regular occurrence. Some had been deeply stirred by the accounts they read of Francis Xavier’s missions…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.