We now turn our attention to this missionary. Born in Fermo in the Marche, he entered the Congregation of the Mission in Rome in 1698, the community that was then at the Saints John and Paul. In 1702 he departed from there for the China mission by the mandate of the Congregation of Propaganda Fide. Regarding his historical narrative, a large volume has just been published, offering numerous letters from this Vincentian missionary who would spend most of his life in China. Curators of the work are Fabio G. Galeffiand Gabriele Tarsetti, two scholars who are passionate about the subject; they originated from the same city of Fermo and have spent many years in historical research and archives. They offer us the text we now have at hand, one that has compiled all Fr. Teodorico Pedrini’s letters to his family, to other fellow missionaries in China, to the Superiors both of Propaganda Fide and of the Congregation of the Mission. The texts published are in two archival collections: that of the Leonine College in Rome and that of the Generalate of the Order of Friars Minor, also in Rome.
The title of the book – I’ve been sent to China, to China I go– summarizes Fr. Pedrini’s expression, which he used to highlight and reaffirm his desire to pursue his mission’s goal to the very end. Having received his mandate from the Propaganda Fide, he would successfully carry it out to completion, without giving in to cries to abandon it and a desire to return to Europe. To the merit of the curators they have also included with the text a rich set of notes that illustrate the various aspects of the story of this Missionary and of the events that took place during those years. For those interested in these issues, the book provides a fascinating text, engaging both the mind and heart, even if the Italian used is not that of our time. Our Missionary’s personality emerges in full relief demonstrating his courage in facing this very risky adventure, always supported by the power of the Spirit. Setting out from Rome in 1702, it would take eight years to reach China, passing through France and Paris, then to Peru and Mexico, until he landed in the Philippines. From there, after three attempts, he managed to disembark in China, arriving finally in Beijing, which would become his base of operations for all the years of his mission. He would soon enter into the graces of the Emperor due to his musical knowledge and ability to build and repair musical instruments; he would also become music teacher of some of the emperor’s sons, themselves later heirs to the throne. All this did not prevent him from exercising his priestly ministry within the limits of his own possibilities and of those restrictions limiting his movements.
He became very involved with the question of Chinese rites, especially whether and to what extent they could also be practiced by Christians. Fr. Pedrini would always side with the Pope; for this he had to struggle with the position of the Jesuit Missionaries who, in the wake of Fr. Matteo Ricci, were in favor of welcoming Chinese rituals into Christian practice. He suffered a great deal, experiencing public prison and house arrest right in the Jesuit house. He would be controlled in his movements and in his interpersonal relationships especially with the Roman religious authorities in order to prevent him from freely communicating his positions. Still, he always demonstrated to everyone his courage and perseverance in defending his choices to remain faithful to the position of the Church of Rome and of the Pope. In the last part of his life he was also subjected to slander, as if he had denied his choices of fidelity to the Pope: in a letter to his friend Fr. Matteo Ripa, also a missionary in China at that time, he defended himself against this accusation and strongly reaffirmed the truth of his choice, saying with determination and courage that he ‘had not changed his cloak’. He was able to build a church in Beijing, which would be the first of the Propaganda Fide in China and is still present in the Chinese capital. This church’s story is interesting: built by Fr. Pedrini in 1723, it was destroyed by a terrible earthquake in 1730, when he too was injured; it was rebuilt again and again destroyed in 1811, once more rebuilt in 1867 and destroyed in 1911 during the revolution of the Boxers and rebuilt a third time by a Daughter of Charity, Sr. Rosalie Branssier, in 1912 and finally, in 2009, re-consecrated and named ‘Our Lady of Mount Carmel’, with an inscription and a stained glass window dedicated to Pedrini (Newspaper clipping from the appendix of the book at pp. 549-51).
This missionary died in 1746 at his home in Xizang in Beijing and the emperor offered a sum of money to celebrate his funeral, testifying to their relationship of respect, a respect that was always deeply felt. Fr. Pedrini’s mission in China was above all his personal witness to the Gospel, his readiness to welcome and help Christians who spoke with him, his commitment to helping to create a climate favorable to the Gospel, his ability to count on the emperor’s favor during his confrontations. A very interesting Fr. Pedrini emerges from these letters, a man with many facets: he is deeply inserted in the reality of the mission, torn between the service to the emperor and the problems of the Christians who draw near to him and whom he accompanies in their faith journey. Sometimes he feels nostalgia for his distant homeland, but he knows that his mission is to remain in China, as the collection’s title also testifies. He shows what it is to suffer from having to live far from his religious community, but accepts it as doing the will of God, a remarkable quality in his spirituality, one that emerges often during the many circumstances of his pilgrimage, even before arriving in China. As already been said, he refuses any temptation to return home because he feels connected to the missionary vocation and the mandate received from the Congregation of Propaganda Fide. He is keen to present himself as an apostolic missionary because he is sent to China by Propaganda Fide, but he does not forget that he is also a Vincentian missionary and loves to identify himself as an unworthy priest of the Congregation of the Mission, just as the Vincentian Missionaries used to describe themselves and humble themselves. In his last letters, almost like a confession, Pedrini articulates the emptiness that he feels around him, given the loss of so many adventurous missionary companions and dealing with the onset of illness and old age with all its effects. A vast culture emerges in his writings, characteristically classical, biblical and theological, with a lively and precise style, enriched with many humorous and healthy ironic notations. His letters are thus a deep reservoir filled with insightful data to understand the reality of the mission in China in the first half of 1700, even if the information, especially of a religious nature, should be compared and enriched with those coming from other sources. He fought a great deal with the Jesuit Missionaries about the different position on the question of Chinese rites: his loneliness is also accentuated by the difficulties of news from Europe, given the long waits for correspondence back and forth from one year to another.
Like Pedrini, two other Vincentian Missionaries also found themselves in China during the same period. This is Fr. Luigi – or Ludovico – Appiani (1663-1732) who spent almost all his time under house arrest in Canton; freed in 1726, he was eventually expelled to Macao where he died in 1732. Macao would continue as a point of reference for Missionaries’ communications between China and Europe. The other missionary is Mgr. Johannes Müllener who entered China together with Fr. Appiani in 1699. Throughout various vicissitudes, including expulsions and returns to China, he struggled to carry out his mission; he was made a bishop, with a little canonical ceremony, but later validated by the Pope. He died in 1742.
These Vincentians constituted the first of Vincentian priests presence in China. In many ways they were the initiators of a long history, forged from love for that country and dedication to the Gospel. Subsequent stages took place during the late eighteenth century – early nineteenth century, marked by the action of two Vincentian saints: St. Francis Regis Clet and St. John Gabriel Perboyre; and that of the first half of the twentieth century that would end when the country was occupied by the Communists and all the Missionaries would be expelled. Those of Chinese origin who remained at home would have to live in hiding. Their presence prepared for a new return to China, one that is taking place in new forms in recent decades, having the island of Taiwan as a starting point.
For those interested in these missionary themes, always so very current, this volume offers a stimulating and enjoyable reading.
Teodorico Pedrini. I’ve been sent to China, I go to China. Letters from the Mission 1702-1744 [Son mandato à Cina, à Cina vado. Lettere dalla Missione], edited by Fabio G. Galeffi and Gabriele Tarsetti, preface by Francesco D’Arelli, Orienti, Quodlibet, Macerata 2018.
Mario Di Carlo, CM – Province of Italy
Translation from the Italian
Dan Paul Borlik, CM
Western Province, USA