Valignano was a brilliant Italian aristocratic and worldly student of canon law. After a profound religious conversion he entered the Society of Jesus in 1566. At an extraordinary early age, in 1573, he was made Visitor to the East, the Jesuit official who, when in the field, directed all Jesuit missions from Ethiopia to Japan.
Valignano from the beginning insisted on the autonomy of the society over against the Portuguese authorities, royal and ecclesiastical, in Lisbon and in Asia. For nine years he traveled his vast region, attempting to understand the problems and opportunities facing the Jesuits in widely differing situations. From 1579 to 1582 he was in Japan, where he articulated his fundamental ideas on the nature of mission. They are laid out in a form appropriate to Japan in his Il Ceremoniale per i Missionari del Giappone (1581), which was written with assistance from leading Japanese Christians. Its philosophic basis was that Japanese society and culture provided a base upon which Christianity could build, so that the church would be Japanese, not Portuguese or Spanish. He later made the same judgment about China.
After several years in India, Valignano went to Macao in 1588, after which he was responsible for the Jesuits in China and Japan only. During two further visits to Japan (1590-1592 and 1598-1603), his diplomatic skills sorted out difficulties with successive dictators, first Oda Nobunaga, and then Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
It was Valignano who instructed Ruggieri and Ricci, the first missionaries to be allowed to stay in Ming China, to translate the key texts of Confucian philosophy and to study them so as to be able to enter the world of the Confucian literati who had administered China for centuries. Ricci performed this task so well that he was accepted by the literati as one of themselves. Valignano approved of Ricci and the other Jesuits dressing as literati, the outward form of their attempt to create a Chinese Christianity that would adopt Confucian thought much as Thomas Aquinas had adopted the thought of Aristotle. Valignano died at Macao while preparing to visit Ricci, who had gained the emperor’s tacit approval for the mission and was allowed to stay in the imperial capital, Beijing.
This article is reprinted from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, Macmillan Reference USA, copyright (c) 1998 Gerald H. Anderson, by permission of The Gale Group; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan. All rights reserved.
- J. F. Morass, The Japanese and the Jesuits: Alessandro Valignano in Sixteenth-Century Japan (1993); A. C. Ross, A Vision Betrayed: The Jesuits in Japan and China, 1542-1742 (1994); J. F. Schutte, Valignano’s Mission Principles for Japan (1980; includes exhaustive bibliography).