The Post-Reformation Catholic Mission in the Modern World

The Inquisition by Francisco Goya / Wikimedia Commons

The inter-cultural communication and the exchanges and transfers regarding Christian doctrine (catechism) – and regarding art and science – after the Reformation.

By Dr. Michael Sievernich / 07.14.2011
Professor of Theology
Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz


This article provides an overview of the Catholic Mission in the modern era, in which two phases can be distinguished: Under the patronage of the Iberian powers, an early phase took place between the 16th and 18th centuries in the Americas and Asia and was carried out by the traditional religious orders. In the 19th century a new missionary initiative arose which focused on Africa, Asia and Oceania. Under the leadership of Rome, the Catholic mission was now carried out by the traditional religious orders and missionary societies, as well as by newly founded orders. It took place parallel to Protestant missions, and generally within the framework of European colonial rule. The geographical focus of this article is on the Americas and Asia (first phase) and on Africa (second phase); thematically this article focuses on inter-cultural communication, the exchanges and transfers regarding Christian doctrine (catechism), and regarding art and science.


The conquest of the Byzantine capital Constantinople by the Ottoman army under Sultan Mehmed II (1432–1481) sealed the fate of the Byzantine Empire and triggered the feeling of an immediate, existential threat emanating from the Ottoman Empire. / AKG-Images

The communication of Christian faith in the historical period that concerns us here began, so to speak, with an irenic and a martial answer to the threat that confronted Europe in the second half of the 15th century which was characterized by a line of conflict between Christianity and Islam. In 1453 Europe was shocked by the conquest of Christian Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) by Sultan Mehmed II (1432–1481) and the fall of the Byzantine Empire. This event in the East prompted the polymath and cardinal Nicolaus Cusanus (1401–1464) to write a fictional dialogue between the known religions of his time, De pace fidei (1453). He hoped in this way to head off the danger of religious war and to secure peace on the basis of the “one religion within the diversity of rites” (religio una in rituum varietate). On the other hand, following the centuries-long Reconquista, the “Catholic Monarchs”, Isabella I of Castile (1451–1504), and Ferdinand II of Aragón (1452–1516) brought an end to Muslim rule on the Iberian Peninsula with the taking of Granada in 1492.

A century after the discovery and occupation of America by Christopher Columbus (c. 1451–1506), Theodor de Bry (1528–1598) visualized the first encounter in an engraving. The fictitious scene illustrates an account (Americae Pars Quarta, Frankfurt 1594) by Girolamo Benzoni (1519–1570). / Library of Congress

When, in the same year, they commissioned the Genoese Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) to seek a western sea route to Asia, they set in motion a process that would lead to a momentous extension of their rule. The expedition was undertaken in order to bypass the Islamic zone and to avoid the eastern route around Africa that various Papal bulls had granted “exclusively” to the Portuguese. The undertaking had religious and missionary motives as well as political and economic ones. According to the royal letter of patronage (Capitulación) of 17 April 1492 Columbus was to sent out “in the service of God and for the propagation of the true faith, as well as for our benefit and profit”.1 A century later, the iconography for the interpretation of Columbus’s discovery was decisively influenced by the Protestant engraver Theodor de Bry (1528–1598). His depictions contrasted European martial civilization with the natives’ paradisiacal innocence and connected the arrival of Christianity (the cross) with the pursuit of riches (gold).

At the same time Portugal, the other Iberian maritime power, continued its ventures to the coasts of Africa in pursuit of conquests and trade (gold, pepper, ivory and slaves). Justified by papal bulls like Romanus Pontifex (1455) such enterprises within the Portuguese sphere of influence were linked to the Church’s patronage.

The crucified Christ (arms outspread, hands nailed to the cross) is depicted as embodying both genders. In accordance with the ideas of the deity Nzambi he has both male (head, arms) and female aspects (breasts, child). / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

On an expedition to Africa in 1482 Diogo Cão (died after 1486) discovered the mouth of the Congo and Angola and his contact with native rulers led in 1490 to a unique missionary experiment. King Nzinga Nkuwu = João I. (died 1506) was baptized. His son, King Nzinga Mvemba = Afonso I. (ruled 1506–1543), supported the Portuguese in developing and Christianizing the country. And Afonso’s son, Dom Henrique, upon completing studies in Portugal, was ordained in 1521 as the first bishop in Black Africa. However, in the years that followed, the problems of communication that arose between the Portuguese crown and the African Manikongo, along with cultural differences and the incompatibility of the Mission and the slave trade, prevented the development of this early and hastily conceived Afro-European partnership to establish an African church. Nevertheless, artefacts dating from this period reveal that African elements entered into artistic depictions of the cross. These include a crucifix in which, in accord with the local mythology’s matrilineal culture, characteristics of both sexes are represented.2

After the arrival of Vasco da Gama (1469–1524) – who was on a mission to search for “Christians and spices” – in India’s Calicut (modern day Kozhikode) in 1499, and following the conquest of Goa, the foundations for the Portuguese maritime empire were laid. In this way the three most important geographical areas became open for Catholic missionary activity which then developed within the framework of European expansion. Because of the jus patronatusSpain and Portugal almost completely dominated the missionary field into the 18th century. A counter weight was created by the founding of an ecclesiastical central authority, the Roman Congregatio de propaganda fide (1622). It represented a new conception of the mission that strengthened its religious character, encouraged the scientific and linguistic education of missionaries and promoted the creation of an indigenous clergy in order to de-Europeanize the mission.3

For various reasons Catholic missionary activity suffered a decline in the 18th century. Among these reasons were Spain’s diminishing political power in the wake of the rise of new (Protestant) sea powers such as Holland and England, the suppression of the Jesuit Order (1773), which led to the loss of some 3,000 missionaries, and the debilitating effects of the Enlightenment, The French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. However, in the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th century, the Catholic mission experienced a new flowering. Coordinated centrally from Rome (ius commissionis), it was financed primarily by the people (mission societies) and drew its personnel primarily from religious orders (some of which had been founded for the sole purpose of doing missionary work) and from numerous missionary societies. In these efforts Pope Gregory XVI (1765–1846) played an important role. During his Pontificate slavery was condemned, each mission area was made into an independent diocese, the indigenous clergy was supported, and mission was more firmly linked with education and health institutions. In this epoch the Protestant Mission also grew stronger, especially in Africa. Thus, the field became more pluralistic and parallel actions of the various denominations took place. During this time, and especially in the second half of the 19th century, the Christian mission was also closely tied to the cause of spreading civilization, and, therefore, often closely connected with the colonial efforts of the European powers in Asia and Africa. It took the decolonization movement in the middle of the 20th century to bring this alliance to an end. Around 1920 the statistics of Catholic missionary activity revealed impressive numbers: There were 12,700 missionary priests and more than 24,000 missionary sisters in missions distributed throughout all of the continents, with the majority located in Africa.4

The Americas

The Christianization of the “New World” began during the second journey of Columbus to the Greater and Lesser Antilles (1493–1496) when Ramón Pané (died 1571), a member of the Hieronymite Order, began his missionary work with the indigenous Taíno. He described this work in his book Relación acerca de las antigüedades de los indios (1498), which is also an important source for ethnographic studies.

Model of the Reduction Candelaria and Census of all Reductions 1767: Reductions were hermetically sealed settlements under the control of the Jesuits which were supposed to protect the indigenous population from the unconstrained exploitation by the Spanish colonialists. The picture shows a schematic view of the reduction Candelaria with plaza, church, official and residential buildings. The census of 1767 gives the number of inhabitants in the reductions Paraná and Uruguay and the total number of over 93,000 individuals. / Peramas, Josephi Emmanuelis: De Vita et moribus tredecim virorum paraguaycorum, Faenza 179

In the 1520s, after the Spanish conquest of the ancient American empires, the Aztec in Mexicoand the Inca in Peru, the systematic Christianization of the indigenous population began under the patronage of the crown. Thousands of humanistically educated and spiritually motivated members of religious orders participated in this mission, primarily they were from the mendicant orders of the Franciscans and the Dominicans, but also from the Capuchins, Augustinians, Mercedarians and Carmelites. During the second half of the 16th century they had established over 250 convents that also served as centres of education. For example, around 1600 Lima had five monasteries for men, seven monasteries for women and five hospitals administered by brotherhoods and congregations. These missionary activities were often spoken of as a conquista espiritual,5 a term meant to designate a gentle evangelization in which the martial aspects of the term were understood spiritually. In this regard, one has only to consider the Franciscan group, of the “doce frailes” who came to Mexico at the beginning of the 16th century as “apostles” under the leadership of Martín de Valencia (ca. 1473–1534). Their missionary success was grounded in a rigorous spirit of piety, poverty and humility, and in their practice of living with the Indians. Their linguistic efforts also contributed to their success. Nevertheless, millenarian pressures and the political Augustinianism of the orbis christianus often led to justifying the use of coercive measures. A century later the anti-colonial experiment of the Jesuit reductions6 in Paraguay began that, at its height around 1700, comprised some thirty settlements. By adapting themselves to the respective autochthon cultures, they brought forth a new Indian-Christian synthesis. This mission project, that has gone down in history as the “Jesuit state”, has been the inspiration for many artistic works, among them Alfred Döblin’s (1878–1957)  trilogy Amazonas (1937), and Roland Joffé’s (born 1945) film, The Mission (1986), based on the play Das heilige Experiment (The Strong Are Lonely) (1942) by Fritz Hochwälder (1911–1986).


[LEFT]: Illustration Las Casas / BnF Gallica
[RIGHT]: The New Laws of Charles V for the New World were promulgated in order to guarantee the Indians “good treatment and preservation”; they constituted part of American law. / Wikimedia Commons

The Conquista brought about a severe population decline among the indigenous peoples of America. This was caused not merely by Europeans inadvertently introducing new diseases, but also by the institutions of economic exploitation, such as the the encomienda (Spanish, encomendar = to entrust), a distributing of the Indians among the settlers to be used as labour power, and for the purpose of Christianizing them. This system and indeed the violence of the Conquista as such was opposed with pastoral, political and literary means by such figures as the Dominican and bishop Bartolomé de Las Casas (1484–1566). By demanding freedom and human rights (derechos humanos) for the Indians, he contributed significantly to a colonial ethical discourse and compelled the crown to take legislative measures, such as the Nuevas Leyes (1542).7 Also, Pope Paul III (1468–1549) issued the bull Sublimis Deus (1537) that emphasized the rights of the Indians to freedom and to the owning of property. It is generally true to say that the legislation passed for the protection of the Indians (Recopilación de las Leyes de Indias) originated in accusations of the missionaries who were intimately acquainted with the social evils and in a position to make constructive proposals for alleviating them.

The mission in Spanish-America extended from the present day North American states of CaliforniaArizona and New Mexico to the Mapuche in the southern part of present day Chile. The mission provided the basis for the systematic construction of a Church organization that during the colonial period encompassed over 30 dioceses in the four Church Provinces of Santo Domingo, Mexico, Lima and La Plata.

From the middle of the 16th century the Philippines were part of the Spanish colonial empire, and during part of this time connected to the Americas by ship routes (Manila-Galeone). Christianized in a relatively short time, some missionaries naively believed that the archipelago could serve as a starting point for the conquest of China.

Also in Brazil, which belonged to Portugal’s sphere of patronage, many missionary enterprises were initiated in connection with the European seizure of land, and, therefore, came also into contact with the colonial system and the slave trade. One of the major protagonists of the Brazilian mission was José de Anchieta (1534–1597), “the Church Father of Brazil”, who used his linguistic talents to write epics and poly-lingual dramas. In the service of the missionary work in Hispano-America and Luso-America many ethnographic works and linguistic studies, such as grammars and dictionaries of the indigenous language, were written, but also bi-lingual pastoral works such as catechisms (Doctrina) and penitentials (Confesionario). Printed in Mexico and Lima these works enjoyed a wide circulation.

John Carroll was a member of the Jesuit order until its suppression; he later became the first Catholic bishop in the United States where he championed the cause of the Catholic minority. In 1789 he founded Georgetown University (Washington D.C.) which has remained to this day one of America’s best universities. / Photo by Patrick Neill, Georgetown University, Wikimedia Commons

Missionary activity in North America did not take place under the jus patronatus granted to one particular political power, but, nevertheless, under the colonial domination of France and England. In Nouvelle France in present day Canada the missionaries encountered Indian peoples such as the Montagnais, Huron and Iroquois, whose settlement areas, languages and cultures were studied by men such as Jean de Brébeuf (1593–1649)Jacques Marquette (1637–1675) and Jean Baptiste de la Brosse (1724–1782). Also noteworthy are the efforts of the women’s religious orders (Ursulines) in Quebec (beginning in 1639). A discerning insight into the northern mission, its ethnographic, linguistic and inter-religious contexts, is provided by a 73 volume collection of reports and letters that is also a valuable source for inter-disciplinary studies.8 In English-America the denominational framework limited the Catholic mission primarily to Maryland. In Baltimore John Carroll (1735–1815)` was later to become the first Catholic bishop in the United States and he made a place for the Catholic minority in the American democracy.


The mural in oils in the late baroque Church Mariä-Himmelfahrt in Mindelheim shows the missionary Franz Xaver with an Indian on his shoulders following the “Good Shepherd”. / Photo by Thomas Mirtsch, Wikimedia Commons

The mission to Asia began with Francisco Javier (Franz Xaver, 1506–1552), one of the circle of friends that made up the early Society of Jesus. He left for his mission in 1540 and travelled to southern IndiaSoutheast Asia and Japan where he gained extensive inter-cultural and inter-religious knowledge. His letters9 awakened a great enthusiasm for missionary activity among the educated youth of Europe.

At the same time, the mendicant orders that were active in Mexico also developed plans for carrying the mission to the Philippines and Asia, and commissioned expeditions in order to realize the apostolic ideal of irenic evangelisation.

In contrast to the experiences in the Americas, missionaries in Asia encountered many highly developed cultures, which made it necessary for the missionaries to use other methods for spreading the faith. Thus, the method of “accommodation” played a decisive role for cultural and religious contacts in this region. This paradigm shift was introduced by the Apolistic Visitator for the far eastern missions, the Italian Alessandro Valignano (1539–1606). The new plan called for “adapting” to the other culture. Such a course required a sound knowledge of the native language, the greatest possible reception of, and esteem for, the other culture, and the training of indigenous personnel. The missionary activity in feudal Japan10 led to numerous conversions, including the conversion of local princes (daimyo), and thus to a flowering of Christianity. In Japan there were approximately 300,000 Christians and institutions such as colleges, language and art schools, as well as printing houses for linguistic and spiritual literature. However, under the centralised rule of the Shoguns, Christianity was forbidden in 1614 and its adherents subjected to violent persecution.

Missionaries also pursued the strategy of accommodation in China where they established Christian communities in large cities like NanjingShanghaiHangzhou and, of course, Beijing. The strategy included the notion of the approach “from above”, by which an interest in Christianity was to be awakened in the educated Confucian elite, in the Empire’s higher civil servants and ultimately in the Emperor himself. This was to be accomplished by using the indirect means of science, art, technology and western handicrafts.

Epigraph on the Tombstone of Matteo Ricci in the Zhalan Cemetery in Beijing: The translation of the Chinese inscription reads:  “Tomb of the Jesuit, the honourable Li. Master Li was called Madou [Matteo] and had the sobriquet Xitai [Wise Man from the West]. He was a native of the country of Italy in the Great Western Ocean. In his youth he entered the Society in order to cultivate perfection [of virtue]. In the renwu year of the Wanli reign the Ming Dynasty (1582) he came to China by sea and was the first to propagate the [holy] teachings [here]. In the gengzi year of the Wanli reign [1600] he went to the capital (Peking) and died in the gengxu year of the Wanli reign (1610) at the age of 59 years, of which 42 in the Society.” (Malatesta / Zhiyu, Departed, Yet Present 1995, p. 132.) / Ricci Institute, University of San Francisco

In addition to Matteo Ricci (1552–1610), who counted many highly educated Chinese among his friends, various other outstanding missionaries from several European countries contributed to the Chinese mission during the late Ming Dynasty and the early Qing Dynasty. Among these were an astronomer from Cologne, Adam Schall von Bell (1592–1666) who achieved the rank of mandarin, the Fleming Ferdinand Verbiest (1623–1688) who directed the office for astronomy and promoted scientific and technological exchanges between China and Europe, and the French artist Jean-Denis Attiret (1702–1768) who painted for the Emperor. However the Roman Catholic policy of making concessions to cultural accommodation, which even extended to the creation of a Chinese liturgy, ended in the “Chinese Rites controversy”: In 1704 the question whether ancestor worship was of civil or of religious nature was controversially discussed, and the issue of whether to adopt this “Confucian” custom was decided negatively.11 In the 19th century, under the patronage of France, the Christian mission declined greatly due to the persecution and xenophobia with which China responded to the way the colonial powers had treated her.

Other important fields of Catholic missionary activity in Asia were opened on the Indian sub-continent. In present day Madurai, the Italian missionary Roberto de Nobili (1577–1656), undertaking a project of participatory observation, adopted the culture of the Brahmans and lived as a Christian sannyasin (wandering ascetic). He also wrote a number of treatises in Tamil.12

In the Mogul Empire in the north of India religious disputations and missionary activity took place at the court of the tolerant ruler Akbar I (1542–1605) and his successors. Here an important role was played by art (portrait miniatures) and Christian works written in Persian by Jerónimo Xavier (1549–1617). Missionary journeys on a smaller scale were made to Afghanistan and Tibet. French missionaries and the Parisian mission society, Société des Missions Etrangères de Paris, did successful work in the area that is now Vietnam but also in former Siam(Thailand), where a scientific and religious mission took place, and Guy Tachard (1648–1712) and others described the indigenous culture. Korea was a special case. Here the spread of Christianity was not due to the efforts of professional European missionaries but to Koreans who had become acquainted with the new teachings in China. In the 19th century a systematic Christianization began in South East Asia, New Zealand and in the far-flung archipelagos of Oceania (MelanesiaMicronesiaPolynesia). However, these efforts were accompanied by great denominational competition. Roman Catholic missionaries began in Hawaii and then moved further westward. In China and Korea persecutions took place, but the forced opening of Japan by the United States (1853) revealed that, despite Christianity having been forbidden, and despite persecution, Christians had maintained their faith clandestinely for over two hundred years.


A Steyler Missionary Teaching in Togo: The Steyler mission (official name: The Society of the Divine Word) was founded in 1875 in Steyl (Netherlands) by Arnold Janssen, who was later canonised. At the time, the Kulturkampf (culture struggle) in Germany made it impossible to found a new congregation there. Four years after the society was established it sent its first missionaries to China. After 1890 German colonies also accepted Steyler missionaries, among others, and allowed them to do missionary work and to undertake the pastoral care of indigenous populations. In Togo, which became a German “protectorate” in the 1880s, Steyler missionaries were active between 1892 and 1918, and took up their work again in 1973. / Steyler Missionswissenschaftlichen Institut

Due to the Arabic Islamisation of North Africa, Christianity, which had flowered during Late Antiquity, had generally disappeared. Only the Coptic Church in Egypt had survived. During the early modern period only a few missionary efforts had been undertaken in Africa, and they had been unsuccessful. Among those were efforts that attempted to bring about a change of denomination in Christian Ethiopia, to create a Christian kingdom in the Congo, or to persuade the king in Zimbabwe (Monomotapa) to convert. There were isolated missionary expeditions to the island of Madagascar but the systematic mission of the black continent, i.e. in sub-Saharan Africa, did not begin until the 19th century. Thus, it took place at a time when Catholic religious orders and Protestant missionary societies competed with one another in parallel activities.13 Within the Roman Catholic Church numerous old and new religious orders took up missionary work. A number of these orders had been founded for the sole purpose of carrying the mission to Africa, as, for example, the Italian Comboni Missionaries (Sudan). Others who were active included the German Pallottines (Cameroon), the Missionary Benedictines (Tanzania), the Spiritans (West Africa and East Africa), the Capuchins (East Africa), the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate and Austrian Trappists (South Africa), and the Jesuits, Steyler, Salesians, Marist Brothers and the Congregation of the Mission/Lazarites. Numerous female congregations also engaged in missionary work in Africa, such as the French Sœurs de Saint-Joseph de Clunyfounded by Marie-Anne Javouhey (1779–1851). A leading role was played by the Frenchman Charles Lavigerie (1825–1892), who as Bishop of Algeria conceived the evangelization of Africa and for this purpose founded a society of African missionaries who later called themselves the “White Fathers” and “White Sisters”. In Muslim North Africa he took care to establish a charitable presence, turning his attention to the Berbers and sending missionaries to the Niger, the Zambezi and the great lakes of East Africa. The later cardinal and “Primate of Africa” was convinced – and so was Bishop Daniel Comboni (1831–1881) – that an African church could only be established by Africans themselves. After the Berlin Congo Conference (1885) had divided Africa up under the European colonial powers, primarily France and England, the colonial context also shaped the missionary efforts. The Catholic powers, such as France, Italy and Belgium, supported the Catholic mission and, in general, the triad of colonization, civilization and missionary work dominated their efforts, finding its clearest expression in the establishment of educational and health-care institutions.

Under the impact of these developments during the period of European Imperialism, in Germany, for the first time, university institutes of missionary science were created and missionary science journals established. Following the example of the “Evangelische Missionslehre” (Evangelical Missionary Theory) (1892) developed by Gustav Warneck (1834–1910) in HalleJoseph Schmidlin (1876–1944) in Münster developed a “katholische Missionslehre” (Catholic Missionary Theory) (1919). In 1911 he had founded the Zeitschrift für Missionswissenschaft und Religionswissenschaft (Journal for Missiology and the Science of Religion) which is still being published today.

The long process of communicating the Catholic faith was linked to the transfer of specific contents which involved the use of various media. Three modes of communication may serve here as examples.


The main goal of the mission was spreading the Christian faith and its fundamental elements were summarized in mission catechisms for the purpose of religious instruction. These works were structured according to the form and with the content of traditional European catechisms, but they also added new forms for communicating the knowledge of faith. Most of the catechisms were written in a European language, primarily in Spanish or Portuguese, or in one of the indigenous languages. Often, however, they were bi- or indeed tri-lingual, i.e. they included translations into the target languages. Even in the early modern period they were not printed in Europe but locally; in México and Lima (for the Americas), Manila (for the Philippines), Funai (for Japan) and Macao (for China). Intended for use by both missionaries and baptismal candidates, like their European models, the contents revolved around the interpretation of such classical catechetical themes as the profession of faith (Credo), prayer (Lord’s Prayer), rituals (Sacraments), ethics (Decalogue) and catalogues (mostly of septennials like the seven virtues, mortal sins or works of charity). But often these works were created with special regard to the local context, in which case they took up specific Christian motives or were geared to a non-European culture and religion. Regarding the oral cultures of America and Africa the missionaries had to first transcribe the indigenous languages and create linguistic manuals (grammars and dictionaries).

All in all it is calculated that for the mission work of the early modern period, it had been necessary to translate Christian content into over two hundred languages, fully half of them encountered in the Americas.

The first book printed in the Americas was a catechism in Spanish and Nahuatl, published in 1539. The title page pictured here is taken from a later work, the bi-lingual catechism of Pedro de Gante, the Doctrina Christiana en lengua mexicana of 1553. / Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas at Austin

Following projects of pictographic catechisms, which took up the tradition of Aztec hieroglyphics, the first Archbishop of Mexico, the Franciscan Fray Juan de Zumárraga (1468–1548), introduced printing into the new world. The first work printed was a bi-lingual catechism in Spanish and Nahuatl: Breve y más compendiosa Doctrina Christiana en lengua mexicana y castellana (México 1539). It proved to be the first in a long list of early Mexican catechisms. Another outstanding example of new world books is the bi-lingual work of the Dominican Pedro de Córdoba (ca. 1482–1521)Doctrina Christiana para instrucción e información de los indios (México 1544), which is based on the structure of salvation history (por manera de hystoria). The Fleming brother Pedro de Gante (ca. 1479–1572), who took part in the writing of the pictographic catechisms mentioned above, later wrote an empathetic catechism in Nahuatl (Doctrina Christiana en lengua mexicana). This work took the Christian terminology (for example cruzyglesia) from the source language, or adopted an equivalent term from the target language (Dios=teotl), or indeed produced terms by combining both languages (God the Father=Dios tetatzin).14

Rhodes, Cathechismus, / BSB München

In Asia differently conceived works were used, for example the Catechismus Sinicus by Matteo Ricci entitled The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven (Tianzhu Shiyi, 1603). The author, trusting in universal reason, wrote this work in dialogue form with reference to China’s three religions. It treats the philosophical nature of God (God’s existence, uniqueness, and eternity) and questions of anthropology (the soul, palingenesis, virtue ethics, and religious pluralism). “This doctrine about the Lord of Heaven is not the doctrine of one man, one household, or one state. All the great nations from the West to the East are versed in it and uphold it.”15 The Latin-Vietnamese Cathechismus (1651) of Alexandre de Rhodes (1591–1660), printed by the Congregatio de propaganda fide in Rome, is structured around “eight days”. It begins by approaching inductively the religious contexts of the country, and goes on to discuss the Christian mysteries of salvation.16 With only minor corrections, the bi-lingual catechism (Spanish/Tagalog), which had been printed in Manila in 1593 using the Chinese xylographic method, was still used by the Franciscans in the Philippines in the 20th century.


For communicating faith, the arts are an accompanying media, but a decisive one as they make it possible to give representational form to the tenets of faith. Nor does art lose its inherent meaning and autonomy in the service of the mission. For example, the role that the Baroque style has played in architecture and the visual arts can still be seen today in Latin America,17 as well as in the Philippines and Goa. To these must be added the less palpable baroque contributions to literature, drama and music. Two examples, one taken from the west and the other from the east, can provide us with an illustration of art’s role, and at the same time demonstrate the importance that images of the Madonna have had in the missionary transfer processes.

The picture, painted on agave fibre, depicts the “Virgen de Guadalupe” (Virgin of Guadalupe), a pregnant woman with indigenous features, with a corona around her, standing on the crescent moon. The colours, flower pattern, clothing and other aspects are elements of Aztec iconography. The artist, year of origin and painting technique are largely unknown. / Wikimedia Commons

In America the painting of the “Virgen de Guadalupe” is an expression of artistic and religious mestizaje (mixture) since it can be deciphered using both European and Aztec codes. It shows the legendary appearance of the Virgin Mary in Mexico in 1531 on the hill of Tepeyac at the gates of Mexico City (today within the city). At the time the Franciscans dismissed the event as Indian “camouflage”. However, the story of the origin of the painting was later woven into the legend of the Virgin’s appearance that was written in the country’s native language (Nican mopohua, 1649). That an Aztec earth-goddess had been worshipped at the very place where the Virgin appeared, and the goddess’s cognomen, “Tonantzin”, transferred to Mary, provides us with a typical example of cult succession. The painting became a symbol of European, Indian and Mestizo integration regarding faith, and it continues to shape the religion of the common people to this day.18

The Chinese painting of the Madonna with child dates from the late Ming Dynasty and clearly reveals hybrid elements. The iconography is taken from the most venerated image Salus populi romani in the Borghese Chapel of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. This icon, dating from Late Antiquity, depicts Mary with the child Jesus held on her left arm. The child holds a book in his left hand and makes a blessing gesture with his right. The Chinese artist has extended the Roman portrait, which according to legend was painted by the Evangelist Luke, into a full length figure. The facial features, the fall of the folds of the clothes, the colours and hairstyle have been remodelled in the Chinese manner so that the Madonna and child Jesus remind one of the traditional image of the Bodhisattva of compassion (Guanyin), who is sometimes depicted with a child. / The Field Museum

The artistically excellent painting of the Chinese Madonna, although itself not a venerated image, is based on one and, like the Virgin of Guadalupe, reveals hybrid elements. It dates from the later Ming Dynasty and is painted with water colours on silk. The iconography is taken from the venerated image Salus populi romani in the Borghese Chapel of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. This icon, that probably dates from Late Antiquity, depicts Mary with the child Jesus on her left arm. The child holds a book in his left hand and makes a blessing gesture with his right. The Chinese artist has extended the Roman portrait which, according to legend was painted by the Evangelist Luke, into a full length figure. The facial features, the fall of the folds of the clothes, the colours and hairstyle have been remodelled in the Chinese manner so that the Madonna and the child Jesus remind one of the traditional image of the Bodhisattva of compassion (Guanyin), who is sometimes depicted with a child.


In Mexico, with the help of indigenous co-workers, the Franciscan missionary Bernardino de Sahagún produced an encyclopaedia of the Náhua culture, The General History of the Things of New Spain (Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España), from which this reproduction has been made. In twelve books it treats, among other topics, the Aztec religion, culture, inorganic and organic nature, and history. The bi-lingual work with numerous coloured illustrations gives a comprehensive description and illustration of the New World. / Insel Verlag

Mission has always been connected with the experience of new worlds of knowledge and with the exchange of knowledge regarding the world. This was particularly true in the modern era, when Europe experienced the contraction of space and time, became aware of the multiplicity of cultures and began to reflect on its relationship to other cultures. Through the transfer of European knowledge initiated by the missionaries other societies also became acquainted with the size and shape of the earth, and with the notion of varieties of cultures. Two examples may suffice to demonstrate this missionary-conveyed knowledge. In Mexico, with the help of native informants and co-workers, the Franciscan missionary Bernardino de Sahagún (1499–1590) produced an encyclopaedia of Náhua culture that is without peer. This General History of the Things of New Spain (Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España) written in twelve books and based on systematic enquiries, examines the Aztec religion (the world of the gods, the sacred calendar and theogony). It also enquires into humans’ relationships to the gods (astrology, divination, moral philosophy, theology), into cultural questions (the nature of the state, justice, professions), and into questions of inorganic and organic nature, as well as history (the conquest). In addition, this bi-lingual work, the manuscript of which lies in the Florentinelibrary Medicea Laurenziana (Ms. 218–20) and is therefore called the Codex Florentinus, contains numerous hand coloured illustrations. It thus provides a comprehensive description and depiction of the New World; knowledge of the world which was to be of service for the mission.19

The Sino-Centric World Map of Giulio Aleni: The extent to which the Jesuit missionaries adapted to Chinese culture is demonstrated by the maps of the world that they made in which – contrary to the then and now standard Euro-centric model – Europe is on the periphery and China is at the centre. / Biblioteca Nazionale Braidense

Not only did the missionaries take a practical interest in cartography (travel routes), they were also interested in gaining a better knowledge of the globe, the dimensions of which first began to become clear during the early modern period. Along with numerous maps of single countries or regions, world maps and globes were also made. The missionaries in China drew up many such maps of the globe, an important reason was that they wanted to inform the Chinese rulers and scholars of the world’s true dimensions and to keep, at the same time, their Sino-centric world view. Matteo Ricci for example created a world map the third edition of which was published in Beijing in 1602. It differed greatly from the Euro-centric standard model. For in this type, presented by Abraham Ortelius (1527–1598) in his Theatrum orbis terrarum (1570) – and which is the dominant type to this day – Europe is in the middle, the American continent to the west, and China appears on the eastern periphery. Ricci moved the American continent to the eastern side of the map, so that China appeared in the middle (honouring China’s traditional name “Middle Kingdom”) while Europe was relegated to the western periphery.20 This depiction was also adopted by the Italian China missionary Giulio Aleni (1583–1649) who, in his comprehensive description of all countries, written in Chinese, added a xylographic coloured map of the world (Wanguo Quantu) with China at the centre.21

Such maps of the world represent just one of the obvious media that illustrate the process of globalization in the modern era, in which the mission played an essential and varied part.



  1. Meyn, Entdeckungen 1984, p. 108f.
  2. Cf. Thiel, Christliche Kunst 1984, pp. 81–91.
  3. Cf. Metzler, Sacrae Congregationis 1971–1976.
  4. Arens, Handbuch 1925, p. 242.
  5. Cf. Ricard, La “conquête spirituelle” 1933.
  6. Cf. Hartmann, Der Jesuitenstaat 1994.
  7. Cf. Casas, Werkauswahl 1994–1997.
  8. Thwaites, The Jesuit Relations 1896–1901.
  9. Xaver, Briefe 2006, Brief 96, pp. 343–396.
  10. Fujita, Japan’s Encounter 1991.
  11. For the China mission cf. Standaert, Handbook 2001.
  12. Nobili, Preaching Wisdom 2000.
  13. Cf. Hastings, The Church 1994.
  14. Durán, Monumenta Catechetica 1984/1990.
  15. Ricci, The True Meaning 1985, p. 67.
  16. Phan, Mission 1998.
  17. Gutiérrez, L’art chrétien 1997.
  18. Brading, Mexican Phoenix 2001.
  19. Sahagún, Aus der Welt 1989.
  20. D’Elia, Il mappamondo cinese 1938.
  21. Aleni, Geografia 2009.


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Originally published by EGO: Journal of European History Online under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license.



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