Xu Guangqi: A great Chinese Catholic at the service of his people and his country

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Federico Lombardi, SJ

 Federico Lombardi, SJ / Church Life / 22 April 2021


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One of the districts of the great metropolis of Shanghai, bustling with life and dense with skyscrapers, is called Xujiahui (or, in other script, Zikawei). At the crossroads of the main streets are perfectly manicured bulletin boards with a plan of the district and an explanation of its name (“Property of the Xu family at the junction of two rivers”) and the places of historical interest. At the edge of a major artery, one comes across a powerful modern bronze statue in the middle of a flower bed; it depicts a wise and authoritative man, seated and dressed in traditional clothes.

He looks upward, holding a book in one hand and a celestial sphere in the other. This is Xu Guangqi, from whom the district takes its name and whose tomb is located in a nearby park, that makes a peaceful oasis among the urban clamor; there’s a museum recounting his life and some sculptures represent him in his most famous activities: teaching peasants how to grow potatoes; instructing soldiers in the use of cannon; promoting astronomical studies. In short, he is clearly a great servant of the people and the country, to whom his city gives due honor.

But that is not enough. In front of the small hill that covers his grave stands a large cross. Not far from the tomb is a large church in the neo-Gothic style. It is the cathedral of Shanghai. Other well-preserved buildings stand nearby. These include one of the best high schools in Shanghai today, an ancient library, a professional school, an ancient astronomical observatory. . .[…] In fact, Xu Guangqi was a Christian, one of the most famous of Fr. Matteo Ricci’s disciples and friends and the founder of Shanghai’s Christian community. On the land purchased by him and belonging to his family, and where he is buried, the main center of the Jesuit mission in China was built in the mid-19th century, a kind of Christian “citadel.” It is still home to the center of the diocese of Shanghai. But let us recall history in  due order.

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