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Jesuits, the World's First Diplomats

Jesuits, the World's First Diplomats

By Anjali Vithayathil



Because not all global connections came with the internet.

By Anjali Vithayathil

Getting two sides of any debate onto the same page is hard enough — and that’s when they speak the same language. But back in 1685, two kingdoms were faced with the tough job of delineating borders. On one side lay the Russian Empire, newly expanded into Asia under corulers Peter I (later, the Great) and Ivan V; on the other, the Qing Empire, ruled by the Kangxi Emperor. The problem? Neither side spoke the other’s language.

Despite the wealth and worldly ambitions of both empires, neither court had a single member who spoke the other side’s native tongue. In the end, the Treaty of Nerchinsk was negotiated by a Polish man named Andrei Bielobocki for the Russians, and two Jesuit priests-cum-interpreters, Jean-Francois Gerbillon and Tomas Pereira, for the Chinese. And how did they get around their tongue twister? By falling back on Latin — the only communicable language available to both empires, and a language that hadn’t been spoken as vernacular in thousands of years.

The Jesuits … were actually the best-equipped for public relations and negotiations at the highest levels of early-modern global politics

These Jesuit translators weren’t anomalies as political agents. In fact, according to Harvard scholar and historian Father Francis Clooney, an event like the signing of the Treaty of Nerchinsk was commonplace back then. And Latin, despite being a dead language, was the lingua franca of the world well into the early modern era — much as English is today, thanks to its ubiquitous liturgical use in Catholic countries. “The very fact that the Catholic Church had already placed a global universal attitude, and the Jesuits had a handy language, was a remarkable fact,” he says. Whether Jesuit priests were Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, French or even native converts, the language of Rome found itself in a lofty and useful position outside Western Europe, and Catholicism became a sort of currency, with Jesuits as the chief agents. The Jesuits, often imagined as monkish missionaries traveling to remote areas of the globe, were actually the best-equipped for public relations and negotiations at the highest levels of early-modern global politics. 

Matteo ricci 2

Matteo Ricci

Source Public Domain

Spirituality, while a central facet of religious life, was only one part of the Jesuits’ role: Their goal was to serve Christian doctrine wherever its leaders called, while also challenging both the status quo of the Catholic Church and the influence of the Protestant Reformation. Through their own schools known as Ratio Studiorum, which emphasized Western philosophy and humanism, as well as non-Western languages, other faiths, history and geography, Jesuits were trained for the hard part: travel to foreign lands, where they often filled powerful vacuums outside their traditional enclaves.

Jesuit skill sets allowed them to serve as useful intermediaries between political entities thousands of miles apart, Father Clooney explains. But there was, of course, a dark side to power as well: If Catholicism was currency, then a Jesuit elite could manipulate religious evangelism and knowledge to maintain lofty positions, which could come at the expense of naive native converts. 

So it was power, adventure and influence, as well as spirituality, devotion and salvation that pushed these priests to travel into the unknown. Jeronimo Xavier, for example, went to India in 1595 to serve under Emperor Akbar and translate Christian works into Persian, but also negotiated trade deals, according to The Visitor: André Palmeiro and the Jesuits in Asia. Matteo Ricci went to China as a scholar of cartography and mathematics, but became one of the first Sinologists, according to the book. “Right from the start, the Jesuits were open to people of various backgrounds — the nobility, the peasants, the educated, the uneducated,” Father Clooney says, but the leaders came only from prominent families. “The people running these operations around the world had very good educations for the standards at the time,” he adds.


The same went for the Kangxi Emperor’s favorite diplomats. Father Gerbillon was a mapmaker, explorer and historian who sat with his mouth near the Chinese emperor’s ear. Pereira wasn’t just a student of Chinese linguistics; he was also a talented mathematician and scientist who served as de facto director of the imperial observatory in Beijing. They were movers and shakers in a time when few cared little beyond what was in their own purview. 

The paradigm of Europe-to-Asia has gradually been overturned. Today the largest number of Jesuits come from India, and the patterns of education and travel have become more East to West, with the majority of Catholic priests in the United States coming from Asia and Latin America. 

Perhaps modern pop culture is also engaging with the wider impact of the Jesuits outside of Europe. Legendary director Martin Scorsese recently met with Pope Francis in Rome for a screening of his new film, Silence. An adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s novel, it tells the tale of three Portuguese Jesuit missionaries in Japan in the 17th century, and the horrors and temptations they endure in fulfilling their destinies. The flick thematically connects an Italian-American filmmaker, a Japanese-Catholic writer, three Portuguese missionaries and an Argentinian pope — proving yet again that it is indeed a small, small world.

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