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Institute for Advanced Jesuit Studies Colloquium


Presented in collaboration with 
The Boston College Libraries 

Thursday, April 12, 2018, 3-5 pm

John J. Burns Library, Boston College
140 Commonwealth Avenue
Chestnut Hill, MA


Calamity from Within?

Jesuits, Papal Legates,
and Chinese Imperial Envoys
in the Eighteenth Century


The Chinese Rites Controversy developed into a political, theological and intellectual struggle between monarchs, popes, diplomats, theologians and philosophers that lasted over a century (1635-1742) and left many victims in its wake—a “calamity from within” the Church and the Jesuit order.

The Controversy centered on the following questions: Were Chinese family ancestral rituals and ceremonies to Confucius civic in nature? Could Chinese converts engage in these rituals and ceremonies without compromising their new Christian religion? The Jesuit missionaries in China believed they could, and in 1700 they found in the Kangxi Emperor of the Qing dynasty an advocate for their position. Other missionaries and, ultimately, the papacy, did not concur, and labeled the rites as idolatrous.

Elisa Frei and Eugenio Menegon will focus their presentations on the lives of some Jesuits of the China mission who traveled across the oceans, cared deeply about the issues, took sides, played politics, and suffered dire consequences for doing so. Their experiences represent a microcosm of the Controversy and reveal its global reach as a clash of cultures and a unique phenomenon in early modern intellectual and religious history.

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The Imperial Red Decree (1716) in Manchu, Chinese and Latin, signed by all Beijing missionaries, requesting the pope for the return of the Qing Jesuit envoy from Rome (





“Sino-Western Relations
and the Chinese Rites Controversy 
in the Eighteenth Century”

Prof. Eugenio Menegon
Department of History, Boston University
& Collaborative Scholar, Institute for Advanced Jesuit Studies


First Presentation

"For the Greater Good of Our Order
Jesuits Betting on the Rites Controversy

Dr. Elisa Frei
Fellow, Institute for Advanced Jesuit Studies, Boston College

Two Jesuits reacted very differently to the difficulties caused by the Rites Controversy in the Chinese empire, despite similar experiences and background. Agostino Cappelli (Ascoli, 1679 - Malabar, 1715) and Ludovico Gonzaga (Mantua, 1673 - Macao, 1718) promised the General of the Society of Jesus they were ready to do anything in order to be sent to the East Indies missions. Cappelli wrote one of his petitions with blood, while Gonzaga proclaimed that, while he wished to go to China, he would prefer Japan in order to be martyred there. Both men had their requests accepted, arriving in Macau together in 1707. Five years before, the pope had dispatched the Apostolic Legate Charles Maillard de Tournon from Rome to inform the Jesuits in China that they could no longer practice their accomodatio (adaptation) and that any new converts had to publicly refuse the rites honoring Confucius and their ancestors. The Chinese emperor became irate and ordered the Portuguese to place Tournon under house arrest in Macao. Cappelli befriended the captive legate and agreed with his position, believing that a Jesuit had to obey the pope and not the emperor—even if this meant rejecting years of successful practices. Gonzaga was sent to Beijing as an imperial mathematician and instead defended the official Jesuit position. Thanks to his friendship with Tournon, Cappelli moved to India, leaving behind a trail of criticism from his confreres, who, like Gonzaga, saw him as a traitor. From the Chinese capital, Gonzaga could do nothing but complain about his Jesuit brother’s behavior and desperately hope for a positive outcome of the Controversy. Choosing the “right” side was, in those years, very hard for individual Jesuits—almost a bet, because no one could know how the matter would end.


Second Presentation

“The Tragic Jesuit Embassy 
of the Kangxi Emperor to Pope Clement XI”

Prof. Eugenio Menegon

After the arrest of Legate Tournon in Macao, the Kangxi Emperor decided in 1707 to send as the Qing imperial envoy to Rome the China Jesuit Giuseppe Antonio Provana (1662-1720), the scion of a noble family from the Dukedom of Savoy. Provana was tasked with informing the papacy about the imperial endorsement of the Chinese Rites. Once he reached Rome in 1709, the Jesuit presented a dossier of imperial documents on the rites, which the pope read at once. The pontiff also personally participated in the deliberations of the Holy Office on the matter. In the meanwhile, Tournon’s procurator in Rome, Abbot Giangiacomo Fatinelli, orchestrated a defamation campaign against Provana and the Jesuits. Provana became isolated at the papal court, and the Jesuit General ordered him to retreat in exile to the Jesuit province of Milan, rather than return to Beijing with a response to Kangxi’s questions. In 1715, the papacy issued the constitution Ex illa die prohibiting the Chinese Rites to Catholics, an action that enraged the Qing emperor. In response, Kangxi asked the pope for the immediate return of his envoy, to report on his mission. Together with his young Chinese companion Luigi Fan Shouyi SJ, a sickly Provana embarked in 1719 for China and died at sea. Kangxi immediately summoned Fan to court, learning about the Roman plots against the Jesuits and the affronts against his emissary. These revelations partly doomed to failure the second papal legation to China, led by Carlo Ambrogio Mezzabarba in 1720-21. Provana’s tragic experience uncovers the tensions within the Jesuit role at the Qing court. As both subjects of the Chinese empire and missionaries of the Catholic Church, the Jesuits found themselves between a rock and a hard place. Some, like Provana, paid dearly for their dedication to both Emperor and Church.




Browsing of in-situ book exhibit
on the Chinese Rites Controversy



Eugenio Menegon is Associate Professor of Chinese History at Boston University, and Collaborative Scholar at the Institute for Advanced Jesuit Studies at Boston College. He has published extensively on the history of Chinese-Western relations, and is the author of Ancestors, Virgins, and Friars: Christianity as a Local Religion in Late Imperial China, Harvard Asia Center and Harvard University Press, 2009, which was the recipient of the 2011 Levenson Prize in Chinese Studies (Association for Asian Studies). His current book project is an examination of the daily life and political networking of European residents at the Qing court in Beijing during the 17th-18th centuries.


Elisa Frei is an Institute Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Jesuit Studies. She received her doctorate in the History of Societies, Institutions, and Thought at the University of Trieste/Udine in 2017. During her yearlong residency at Boston College, Frei is developing her doctoral dissertation, Outpouring of Hearts on Fire: Italian Jesuits Asking for the Indies (1678-1730 ca.), into a monographic-length publication as well as publishing articles, presenting her work at academic conferences, and engaging in other Institute initiatives.