Book review: The Visitor, by Liam Matthew Brockey

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 August, 2014, 12:46pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 August, 2014, 12:46pm

The Visitor - Andre Palmeiro and the Jesuits in Asia
by Liam Matthew Brockey
Harvard University Press
4 stars

Mark O'Neill

"We all ask God and especially those who live here in China to send a ray from heaven into the soul of this young man, so that he recognises the truth that we preach and opens a wide gate for the spread of His holy law in this great kingdom."

So wrote Andre Palmeiro, a senior Jesuit on a visit to Peking in 1629. He was speaking of the young Chongzhen emperor of the late Ming dynasty, who had ascended to the throne in 1627.

This book is an account of the fascinating life of Palmeiro, a Portuguese appointed by his superiors in Rome in 1617 to inspect Jesuit missions around the world. They stretched from Mozambique to Honshu in Japan. His journey lasted nine years, covered three continents and included 3,000 kilometres on foot.

Born in Portugal in 1569, Palmeiro joined the Jesuits at 15 and began a career as a preacher and university professor. Because his superiors regarded him highly, they gave him, at the age of 48, the enormous task of inspecting their missions around the world.

It was a dangerous journey even for a person in the prime of youth. The theologian set sail from Lisbon on April 21, 1617, and arrived in Goa on November 9; the three Jesuits with him died of disease en route.

He inspected Cochin, Malabar and Ceylon, making an almost nine-month trek around southern India. He wrote lengthy reports for Rome, describing the religions and customs of the people, and the bitter rivalry among the European colonisers.

In 1621, Rome gave him authority over all Jesuit affairs between the Cape of Good Hope and the Spice Islands, like a viceroy in the Portuguese empire. The Province of Goa included Jesuit communities at the Mughal courts of Agra and Lahore, in Ethiopia and the lower Zambezi valley.

In the spring of 1626, Palmeiro moved to Macau and spent the final years of his life dealing with the church in Japan and China.

The church in Japan was in deep crisis, with the government engaged in ruthless persecution that created thousands of martyrs and drove those who remained underground. Palmeiro could not even send priests there to meet the faithful.

In China, at least, he could visit - and left us with the wealth of his knowledge and insights.

This is an academic book, carefully researched and with a wealth of footnotes. While the life of Palmeiro's predecessor, Matteo Ricci, is better known, this is one of the first about another leading Jesuit of this period. For the general reader, perhaps, there is too much detail of church doctrine and the infighting among different factions within the Catholic Church.

The most interesting passages are those which cover Palmeiro's travels in India and China, and describe his efforts to evangelise the Indians, Africans, Chinese and Japanese.

How far to adapt the faith and practice to meet the requirements of societies so different from Europe? Should they use a Chinese term for "God" or invent a new word as they had in Japan? How to remain in China when they were not officially allowed to evangelise?

These questions would occupy the minds of Western missionaries, Catholic and Protestant, for the next four centuries, even up to the present day - many "underground" missionaries are working in China while they hold other jobs.