This site has been archived for historical purposes. These pages are no longer being updated.
In November 1995 at a 16th century monastery outside Lisbon,
a group of scholars gathered to honor the work of early Jesuit scientists.
Monument to Pombal in LisbonIn November of 1995 a remarkable colloquium was held in Portugal concerning the influence of Jesuit Mathematicians on China and Japan in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. It was organized by the department of mathematics at the University of Lisbon, funded by Portugal's Oriental Foundation and held in an ancient monastery 30 miles southeast of Lisbon.
where Jesuit visitors pay their respects
The colloquium was a remarkable encomium of our early Jesuits. The speakers included mathematicians and historians from research centers in Paris, Rome, London, Netherlands, Beijing and from the Universities of London, Leiden, Braga, Coimbra, and Lisbon.
The speakers (only 2 of the 15 were Jesuits) were determined to give long-overdue credit to "that remarkable group of men, the early Jesuits who differed from any other missionaries. It is as if they were on fire!" All speakers showed great enthusiasm for Jesuits and for their contributions to Chinese mathematics.
Christopher Clavius, in particular, was singled out, partly because of his influence in starting the "Mathematical centers" to train Jesuits for Jesuit colleges and for the mission to China. His "academies of mathematics" flourished in Rome (at the Roman College in 1560), France, Austria, Munich, Belgium, Bohemia and Portugal. The faculty in each academy included Clavius-trained Jesuit mathematicians and each one was firmly committed to rigorous mathematics. The most demanding of all these schools was in Portugal, where the China-bound Jesuits had to come in order to disembark. Jesuits who had the inclination and ability were given the best mathematical training available anywhere.
All presenters spoke with greater passion than most Jesuits do about this Jesuit apostolate. They spoke with reverence and admiration for Jesuits, but at the same time did not overlook their omissions and mistakes - evident today with the advantage of hindsight. Listed here are six responses to complaints of past historians critical of Jesuit efforts.
The 4-day symposium was held within the1. Jesuits merely used mathematics as hidden bait to Christianize China.
monastic walls of St. Peter of Alcantara.
"There was nothing hidden about it! The Jesuits made no secret of their apostolic intentions. No matter where they were, Jesuits used whatever would attract their hearers to the gospel. Just as they used music in Paraguay, they used mathematics in China. In fact in no other mission placed as much emphasis on mathematics. For Jesuits there was no more important work than spreading the Gospel, but they were also resolved to present up-to-date mathematics to the Chinese. This is clear from the training given the men destined for China."
2. The Jesuits dealt only with the elite of Chinese & Japanese society.
"This is not true. In fact they dealt with everyone they met. It is true that some Jesuits such as Matteo Ricci dealt only with scholars while others such as Ferdinand Verbiest spent his time in the court. But, Jesuits were anxious to deal with anyone willing to listen in order to make Christians of these 200 million people. As for Japan, Jesuits introduced a novel idea to the Japanese, medical care for the poor."
3. The French Jesuits and Portuguese Jesuits feuded with each other.
"This is true, but recall that Ignatius did not want only one country to represent Christianity. He wanted diversity in order to present a universal church, and so deliberately sent different nationalities with a variety of temperaments and viewpoints. Living together they had to settle their differences and so worked out a more convincing presentation of the Gospel. Of course they would never have feuded if they did not know each other, but this was never Ignatius' approach.
4. The Portuguese Jesuits did not contribute any important mathematics.
One of the speakers was a Chinese scholar from Peking who (speaking in Chinese) urged mathematicians and historians to come and work on the many untranslated Jesuit Portuguese and Chinese documents found in the Peking libraries. Then they would recognize that "the Portuguese Jesuits did more than any other nationality."
5. Jesuits did not introduce any chemistry or biology.
This is true about early Jesuits, but at that time canon law forbade clerics from studying any of the life sciences. Some later Jesuits, however, did outstanding work in the life sciences.
6. Jesuit scientists followed Aristotelian natural philosophy too long.
This is also true, but their intention was to unify all knowledge, and Aristotle provided a familiar and seemingly adaptable framework for such an ambitious undertaking.
The colloquium was not only remarkable in its enthusiasm for Jesuits, but also for the youth of the participants and their grasp of Jesuit history.
The 50 young scholars posed under the statue of St. Peter of Alcantara,
whose life differed greatly from the Jesuit scientists.
The 35 lunar craters named to honor Jesuit Scientists
Post-Pombal Portugal opinion of Pre-Pombal Jesuit Scientists
Roger Boscovich and his presentation of atomic theory two centuries ago
Christopher Clavius and his Gregorian calendar
The Mezmerizing adventures of Maximilian Hell
Athanasius Kircher Master of a Thousand Arts
Franscesco Lana-Terzi Father of Aeronautics
Francis Line the hunted dial-maker
Ferdinand Verbiest Director of the Imperial Observatory
Ignatius, Nadal and Perspective Art
Jose Acosta Pioneer of the Geophysical Sciences
Seismology: The Jesuit Science
Saccheri's Solution to Euclid's BLEMISH Origins of Non-Euclidean Geometry
Hyperbolic Geometry Theorems of Girolamo Saccheri, S.J.