A historical novel dramatizes the life and work of a Roman Catholic missionary.
Born in the mid-16th century to a wealthy family in the Italian town of Macerata, Matteo Ricci receives a classical education from his beloved tutor, Father Niccolò Bencivegni. One day, while still a boy, Matteo learns that the priest will be leaving Macerata for Rome in order to join an exciting new religious order: the Society of Jesus. “Just before you were born, Matteo,” Bencivegni explains of the order’s co-founder, “a Christian missionary from Spain named Francis Xavier wanted very much to show the people of China the virtues of becoming Christian. But he became sick and died before he could even try.” When he reaches adulthood, Matteo joins the society—also known as the Jesuits—himself, much to the consternation of his parents. Matteo develops a fascination for cartography and dreams of becoming a missionary in the still mysterious Far East. His wish is made a reality when the society sends him to India and eventually China, where he will attempt to fulfill the dream of Xavier. But to truly bring Christianity to China, Matteo will have to find a way to meet the emperor by gaining entrance to the Forbidden City—the imperial palace that no European has ever visited before. Gregory’s (God’s Messenger, 2017) narration possesses a fablelike quality that makes the whole novel feel like an elongated bedtime story: “Deep within the strange lands and customs of China, the Jesuits found comfort in their familiar routine of prayer and meditation. Naturally they spoke Italian among themselves and sang simple hymns in Latin.” By presenting Ricci’s work as a quest to realize the dream of Xavier, the author provides a simple but effective arc to the priest’s life. As is usual for the Mentoris Project series—which focuses on notable Italians and Italian Americans—the author takes a singularly positive view of her subject, which flattens Ricci a bit as a character. The book doesn’t quite satisfy as true fiction—at least not for adults—but the tale will teach readers a lot about Ricci and the Jesuit mission in China.
A lightly fictionalized account of the first Jesuit in China that informs but fails to enthrall.