1569  — 1635

André Palmeiro

A noted theologian, teacher, preacher, and Jesuit leader in Portugal and then in India and East Asia.

André Palmeiro was a noted theologian, teacher, preacher, and Jesuit leader in Portugal and then in India and East Asia. His learning, piety, zeal, wisdom, tireless travels, and extensive writings earned him great influence not only on Jesuits but also on ecclesiastical and secular rulers. After a year-long trip to China, he issued a severe criticism of the accommodationist missionary strategy and tactics of Matteo Ricci and his followers in Beijing and elsewhere.

A typical Jesuit

In one sense, André Palmeiro was a typical example of an early modern Jesuit, whose education followed the usual pattern for his peers in Portugal and elsewhere in Europe. The Jesuits were known for their commitment to education as a means of converting and training the sons of society’s elite, both in the West and on the mission field. Palmeiro spent more than twenty years as a student, faculty member, and administrator within the Jesuit system in Portugal.

The second major emphasis of the Jesuits – mission in other lands – finds expression in Palmeiro as well. Though he left his homeland far later in life than most Jesuit missionaries, he traveled as widely – to India and then to China – and involved himself in the work of missionaries in as many different countries as all but a few Jesuits.

His piety typified seventeenth-century, Post-Tridentine Roman Catholicism: that is, the complex of core Christian beliefs held also by Protestants plus the countless rites, rituals, and religious regulations to which the Protestant Reformers had objected. He prayed to Mary and the saints; used images of them as part of his personal worship and promoted their use in corporate worship; believed in the existence of pieces of the True Cross and other supposed relics of early Christian days; and engaged in strict asceticism, including self-flagellation, to mortify his flesh and atone for his sins.

His early career

André Palmeiro began his long career with the Jesuits as a young student in one of their premier colleges in Portugal, after which he was appointed an instructor for younger students. One year before his ordination (probably in 1599), Palmeiro became a professor of philosophy in the Colégio das Artes. Though he soon became recognized as a learned teacher and was believed by many to have received a doctoral degree, in fact he repeatedly refused to accept the doctoral degree offered him by the university. His gesture was made ‘out of humility,’ stemming from his desire to reject worldly honors rather than to embrace them.

Palmeiro excelled as a student and as a professor. His lecture notes were filled with references to the Bible, Thomas, and other ecclesiastical authorities. Famous as a preacher, Palmeiro also wrote poems for important occasions, such as one on Pentecost, which is replete with citations of and allusions to Classical authors. As a professor, he moved gradually from teaching mostly moral theology up to the last and most distinguished subject, speculative theology. Many years were spent instructing students in moral theology (ethics and casuistry) and in the sacraments, all of which proved useful to him later when he had to adjudicate complex cases on such topics in Asia.

As a superior member of the Jesuits, Palmeiro gradually assumed more duties of leadership. He was an examiner for the public theological disputations held by the Society, the proceedings of which would later be published in book form. As one of the college consultors at Coimbra, he worked closely with the rector on academic affairs and matters of governance,” which further prepared him for his role as Visitor in Asia. These and other activities helped to preserve and enhance the honor of the Society, a major concern for all members but especially for its leaders, and one which would dominate his years as Visitor. Palmeiro’s training came also as he watched the visitation conducted by João Álvares to his own college.

Palmeiro’s role as a theologian who participated in important public religious events came into play also when the pope began the process of canonizing Queen Isabel of Portugal. Palmeiro testified to what he had heard and read of her piety and of miracles which she had performed in response to devotions by pious women. Indeed, he had the habit of “going to visit her tomb both to venerate the saint as well as to ask graces from her” (70).

A wider role

Palmeiro’s life took a decisive turn in 1614, when he was forty-five, as a result of his powerful preaching at a time of religious crisis to a congregation that included both secular and ecclesiastical leaders. Less than two months later, he was sent by his superiors to the city of Braga, where he looked after academic affairs in the Jesuit college, oversaw management of temporal affairs for the community, and offered “spiritual guidance to his subordinates as well as to outsiders, both religious and secular” (75). In addition, as a senior church leader, he served as a diplomat and represented the Society to the archbishop, who was also a major secular figure.

In managing the brothers in Braga, Palmeiro tried to rein in the excessive piety of one man whose regime of prayer, fasting, and self-flagellation led to a premature death. As he would again later, Palmeiro displayed wisdom and pragmatism in the face of religious zeal that seemed out of control. Nevertheless, after the young priest’s death, Palmeiro praised his religious devotion and “averred that he had seen [him] levitate ‘two or three palms’ high during his prayerful ecstasies” (78). 

Palmeiro’s position entailed administrative, educational, pastoral, and diplomatic responsibilities as the senior Jesuit in the region. His duties necessitated a great deal of travel, which, along with the leadership tasks he had to fulfill, served as preparation for his upcoming role as Visitor. By the time he left Europe, Palmeiro was noted for his “laudable combination of gentleness and rigor,” along with “his zeal for observance of the Society’s rules,” outstanding piety, skill in relating to both secular and ecclesiastical authorities, and wise pragmatism in both spiritual and material affairs. A renowned preacher and distinguished theologian, at forty-eight years of age he was described by the most famous theologian in Portugal, Francisco Suarez, as being “in fine shape and a great man; there is none other in Portugal like him.” (81)

The Visitor: In India

Because of these qualifications, the Society ordered Palmeiro to leave Portugal and go first to India, then to Macao, to oversee and evaluate the work of the Jesuits overseas. When Palmeiro arrived in Goa, the capital of Portugal’s Indian empire, he found a city very much like any of its counterparts in Europe. His role and duties also resembled those of his counterparts in Europe. He had to balance pastoral care of the members of the Society, administration of educational institutions, provision of material support, and settlement of internal disputes on the one hand, with his duties as a senior leader among both ecclesiastical and secular authorities on the other hand. Always, he sought to preserve the honor and reputation of the Jesuits by enforcing the strict rules of the Society, removing all occasions for justified criticism, and insisting upon proper – even preferential – treatment by leaders of church and state alike.

Making Goa his base, Palmeiro also traveled to the east coast of India to visit missionaries in far-flung parts of the Province of Malabar. The focus of the Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity must remain upon China, so we shall not devote too much space to this period in his life, except to note that Palmeiro proved to be a wise, prudent, diligent, and courageous leader whose example motivated other Jesuits to deepen their piety and devote themselves more fully and faithfully to their missionary task.

One major controversy in which Palmeiro played a decisive role merits attention here, however, since it resembles a later dispute he had to settle in China. A zealous and independent-minded brother, Roberto Nobili, had decided to follow Paul’s resolve to “become all things to all men” in ways that drew criticism. In an attempt to reach the Brahmans, he not only adopted the dress and lifestyle of an ascetic, but also distanced himself from other Portuguese and from low-caste indigenous Christians. As member of the aristocratic elite in Italy, he thought he could make this distinction. Going further, he “adopted for himself and permitted his neophytes to retain the outward symbols of their social rank. . . . He also encouraged a form of ablution before hearing the mass, adapting local concepts of purity to Christian rituals, and changed some of the religious terminology inherited from the indigenous Christians of Southern India (the so-called Thomas Christians) that were used by the Jesuits” (91).

His major critic, who had decades of experience in India, “feared that potential converts would not be able to spot the uniqueness of Christianity if it was cloaked in outward signs borrowed from the multiple contemporary forms of Hinduism” (94).

Palmeiro listened to both sides and eventually agreed with the strategy of Nobili as offering “easy access to eternal salvation for all people, and not [forcing] them into Hell” (96). Later, however, he came to believe that Nobili had gone too far in separating from all but high-caste Hindus and thus denying the international and inclusive nature of the Church of Christ. He also discovered that Nobili’s efforts had, in fact, produced few converts. Close inspection of Nobili’s work in situ revealed that he “had not baptized anyone or made Christians, nor was he occupied with the conversion of souls,” leading one observer to say that Nobili “intended only to be considered a learned man among the Brahmans” (111). This the Visitor could not abide. Revolutionary missionary methods, even if strictly permissible, must bear fruit, or else they are counter-productive. After all, the goal of the Jesuits was to build a church based on Christian faith and practice.

The same concern for fruitfulness would come up later in China when Palmeiro had to evaluate the controversial methods of Matteo Ricci and his followers.

The Visitor in China

 Arriving in 1626, Palmeiro spent the last nine years of his life in Macao as Visitor for the Province of Japan, which included the Vice-Province of China and regions now known as Southeast Asia.

In Macao Palmeiro encountered the same problems he had dealt with in India: Personality conflicts, competition and strife among different Roman Catholic orders (which in one notorious case led to a deadly riot), a shortage of material resources and men, local resistance to his authority when his views differed from those with more experience in a particular area, and the declining power of Portugal, whose navy was being challenged by Dutch fleets.

Merchants in Macao helped subsidize the Jesuits’ work there and throughout East Asia; in return, the Jesuits served as “diplomatic and economic mediators with indigenous authorities and traders” (198). As Visitor for the Jesuits, whose numbers and skills made them “a major political and economic force in the colony” (198), Palmeiro once again found himself near the center of political, economic, and religious power.

Not surprisingly, Roman Catholic missionaries’ close identification with Portugal presented perhaps the most dangerous challenge, since they were assumed to be agents of a foreign power whose intentions were either suspect or known to be hostile. Already, persecution under a hostile government in Japan – where the Jesuits’ “strategy of intermingling politics and economics with their religious aims led to their being viewed as adversaries by the military hegemons” (200) – had reduced the Jesuit work there to a mere shadow of what it had been before, and even worse was to come during Palmeiro’s time as Visitor. To overcome this obstacle, Jesuit missionaries either tried to hide their nationality or sought ways to make their religion more palatable to local rulers.

Palmeiro sought not only to send aid and encouragement to the dwindling number of Jesuits in Japan, but also to re-deploy those who had escaped to other countries for missionary service. They and newer workers attempted to establish churches in what are now Vietnam and Burma.

In China the capture of the Philippines by the Spanish and depredations by Dutch fleets had caused suspicion among Ming rulers about the presence of the Portuguese, including missionaries, in Macao. Some officials saw the Jesuits who “resided in the principal cities of the empire as a network of spies plotting the inevitable invasion” of Japan by the foreigners (221).

Although for much of his time in Macao, especially soon after his arrival, “Palmeiro’s main concern was the embattled Japan mission” (201), for our purposes, Palmeiro’s involvement in the Vice-Province of China carries the most interest. We can see all the major themes mentioned previously repeated here, but his judgment concerning the controversial “accommodationist” strategy and tactics of the Jesuits in Beijing is most pertinent today.

Following Matteo Ricci, Jesuits in Beijing and elsewhere adopted the dress of Chinese scholars so that they could gain access to this influential elite. They studied the Confucian classics and criticized Buddhism and Daoism in support of Confucianism (which many now prefer to call “Ruism,” since “Confucianism” is largely a construct created by the Jesuits themselves). More than that, believing that the ceremonies in honor of Confucius were merely secular and honorific rites, and not religious worship, they declared that Chinese Christian converts could participate in these rituals.

In their efforts to win approval and to attract the interest of both the scholars and the Court, they presented very costly gifts, followed the usual rules of etiquette, wore silk robes, and introduced Western science, especially astronomy. This strategy was a major, and often leading, partner in their campaign to gain permission to reside in the capital city and in the entire nation. They had gained a few converts among the scholar elites, “but the strategy of engaging mandarins had been met with ambivalent results, and had even played a role in an outbreak of persecution in 1616” (201).

One major source of controversy was their choice of “Shangdi” as the proper appellation for the Christian God. They had studied the Classics and believed that Chinese notions of Shangdi corresponded neatly with biblical descriptions of God.

The Jesuits’ approval of participation in rites honoring Confucius would grow into the “Rites Controversy,” which would eventually lead to the expulsion of not only the Jesuits, but also all Roman Catholic missionaries, from the Middle Kingdom in the eighteenth century.

In the autumn of 1628, Palmeiro embarked on a year-long visit to China, which involved traveling more than three thousand miles. For much of his journey, he traveled with an embassy of Portuguese diplomats, in order to conceal his identity as a Jesuit missionary. He wrote extensive and detailed letters back to his director general in Rome, in which he described all facets of Chinese life as he observed them, knowing that his journal would be widely read. He rode in a sedan chair in order to keep himself hidden despite his reluctance to indulge in any luxury. Along the way, he noted both the great volume of trade carried on in China as well as the pervasive and, to him, disgusting idolatry. He did, however, admire the pervasive influence of a regard for filial piety and the civil service examination system that produced a true meritocracy.

He found Roman Catholic converts in several places he visited and was touched by their welcome and their zeal to listen to his teaching and to receive the sacraments from him. Because of his white beard, he was considered to be of great age, which brought deeper reverence as well as respect for the rigors of his journey. In some places, he “found solid communities that grew in spite of the persecutions that had obliged the Jesuits to seek refuge under the protection of mandarin allies” (245). He approved “their decision to follow the path of humility with regard to their adversaries. . . .  ‘By suffering in silence, … we have softened them in such a way that they will not only not bite, but not even bark’” (246). What touched him most, however, was the sight of Christianmandarins “acting as altar boys beside the Jesuits” (255).

Palmeiro was also impressed by the piety of the Jesuits whom he met, their vigorous evangelistic efforts, their pastoral care of converts, and their translation of Western devotional classics into Chinese. Consistent with Roman Catholicism’s synthesis of pagan philosophy with biblical theology, they also published translations of works by Aristotle and Porphyry, anticipating similar translation activity by some of the more liberal nineteenth-century Protestant missionaries.

During his visit, he heard arguments from both supporters and detractors of Ricci’s approach. He approached the matter with an open mind but “would have to see proof of the success of the Jesuits’ disputed strategies, or at least gauge the scale of the difficulties that they faced, in order to make up his mind… . That is, he would have to see communities of devout Chinese Christians being run by skilled pastors, and he would have to see the fruits of cooperation between imperial officials and missionaries … either by ensuring [the Society’s]  political protection or by expanding its size. But woe betide those Jesuits who exaggerated in their accommodation to Chinese cultural norms, those who work silk robes when it was not necessary or those who carried themselves in a manner too reminiscent of that of mandarins” (243).

As in India, Palmeiro did not disapprove of most elements of their methods, but he did issue a judgment about the proper translation for the biblical names for God. In his opinion, which carried full authority, “Shangdi” was not to be used, precisely because it resonated so well with Confucian scholars. In other words, what others considered to be the strength of this name – its complex of connotations within traditional Chinese Confucian writings – represented for Palmeiro its fatal flaw.

Like others before, during, and after his time, he believed that “Shangdi” carried too many meanings, some of which indeed resembled the God of the Bible, but some of which did not. That lack of total overlap made Shangdi the wrong choice as a name for the God of the Bible. Palmeiro agreed with the judgment of critics within the Society in China that Ricci “had erred by using terms and phrases that his Chinese readers would associate with their religious traditions, thereby identifying Christian concepts with paganism” (219). He challenged them “to find other terms for Christian concepts, ones that were not reminiscent of the Confucianism that they had considered their closest point of contact to the indigenous elite” (275).

Being a practical man as well as a theologian, the Visitor also wondered why “there were so few Christians despite the presence of Jesuits within the Ming Empire for forty years ‘with so much labor and expense’?” In other words, why had there been so many interchanges that “resulted only in ‘conversation and not conversion’”? (216)

The Jesuits in Beijing had tried their best to hide from the Visitor the religious aspects of Confucian belief and practice. For example, they did not allow him to visit the temple of Confucius in Beijing, lest he be presented with “too vivid a spectacle of incense and prostrations before statues” (259). Despite their best efforts, however, they failed to persuade Palmeiro that Confucian scholars were purely secular in their outlook, a judgment that has been shown in recent times to have been inaccurate from the beginning.

As he reflected upon what he had seen and heard in China, Palmeiro “questioned whether the maturing Chinese mission still needed to rely so heavily on ambiguous translations and metaphors” (290). He realized that formidable obstacles faced Christian missionaries in China, including “widespread xenophobia, a lack of clear permission to reside in China, and an excess of timidity on the part of the missionaries” (292). He encouraged them “to preach the sacred gospel more freely” (295) and “objected to ‘political’ behavior,” that is, dissimulation, “which sacrificed virtue for expediency and constituted a way of masking one’s true intentions so as to avoid giving offense” (296).

He understood that, while reception of the gospel among the lower classes had been far greater than among the literati, there was a danger that “we might appear to be gathering these plain folk into our hands in order to incite riots” (292).

In dealing with the elites, he said, missionaries should be careful lest they spend too much time talking about science or mathematics; these should be merely conversation starters, and should always serve “to draw Chinese minds to the Creator of the universe, not to creation” (301). Nor did Palmeiro think that the similarities between Christianity and Confucianism so stressed by some missionaries were more than superficial. Fundamentally the two belief systems were divided by huge differences, not only in beliefs about a supreme being, but even in their moral standards. He contrasted behaviors which Confucianism tolerated with biblical norms and found the disparity too great to be elided by those zealous to emphasize points of contact.

Even practically speaking, if a prospective convert did not understand the essential differences between his culture and the Christian faith and realize just how great a cost conversion would entail, any profession of faith would be built on a weak foundation. Any truths in Confucianism came from being created in God’s image; “coincidence was hardly a reliable ally in the battle for conversions” (310).

Finally, Palmeiro “placed the blame for the low number of baptisms in China on those Jesuits who persisted” in this accommodationist approach (310).

Later, when overseeing the work of Jesuits in Southeast Asia and in China, Palmeiro would apply similar standards in the realm of ethics, insisting the catechumens should be instructed in the Christian teachings on marriage and not allowed to marry non-Christians or engage in polygamy. He did not give in to the argument that this rigorist position would turn people away from the faith, nor did he approve of allowing laxity in Christian religious practices. Insisting upon the indissolubility of Christian marriages, for example, produced communities whose example attracted pagans to Christianity.

Palmeiro’s death in Macao was brought on not only by age, fatigue, and the stresses of his job, but also by grief over the fate of his brothers in Japan and his own severe, even excessive, self-mortification to atone for his sins. The highest secular and religious officials participated in his funeral. He was mourned as a model of Roman Catholic piety, missionary zeal, wise leadership, and wisdom in handling complex affairs and conflicting men.


  • The Visitor: André Palmeiro and the Jesuits in Asia, by Liam Matthew Brockey. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014. 

About the Author

G. Wright Doyle

Director, Global China Center; English Editor, Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity, Charlottesville, Virginia, USA.