In the long run, some of the missionaries became defenders of the plural and indigenizing approaches, respectful of cultures perceived as “prepared” to receive the Gospel. Colonial and missionary endeavors saw themselves sporadically on the opposite sides of the barricade, one important occasion was the Malabar rites controversy.

Division of the world between Iberian crowns

Catholic missions in the early modern period followed in the steps of European mercantile and colonial explorations and conquests. In Asia, Catholic religious orders arrived under the ecclesiastical patronage (Padroado) of the Portuguese king who in turn received the right to finance missionaries through a series of papal bulls including Romanus Pontifex (8 January 1455) by Nicolas V. The Spanish crown acquired the Patronato right over the West Indies, except Brazil, by the bull Inter Caetera (May 1493) from Alexander VI. The task of taking up conversion to Christianity was in principle the basis on which the right to trade monopoly and territorial possession was granted to the Iberian crowns by the Papacy. In this arrangement of dividing the world in terms of religious jurisdiction and political dominion, the Iberian crowns were supposed to finance the construction of churches, employment of clerics and missionaries who were sent to convert non-Christians. In Asia, the Padroado’s pecuniary support was always negligible and alternative funding had to be found mostly in loco and from other sources.

Society of Jesus

Society of Jesus was the most successful and efficient missionary order under the Padroado, from the day Francis Xavier arrived to Goa  (India) in 1542 until the suppression of the order in 1773.  By the end of the 16th century, the Jesuits of the Portuguese Padroado had a string of missions in India, Japan and China. Jesuits were also present in the West Indies under the Spanish Patronato but were neither the first nor the most important missionary order.  In Asia, where Portuguese administration never reached outside of the small and dispersed maritime trading marts, excepting the relatively large territory of Goa, the missionary project of the Society of Jesus was mostly financed by various independent charitable and financial sources (testaments of rich patrons, silk trade, private inheritance, etc.). The exception was the mission to the Mughal court, which functioned also as a Portuguese “embassy” or was seen as such by the Mughal emperors.

In 1689, the first Jesuits sent and financed by the French king arrived in India, also following French commercial and colonial prospecting in the Indian ocean and beyond. To circumvent  the Padroado jurisdiction, the first French Jesuits were sent as “mathématicians du Roi” with a scientific mission, and initially destined for China. At this point the Portuguese Padroado was too underfunded to object forcefully against the “intruders” since the Portuguese king’s interests were already turned away from India to Brazil.  

On the ground, in Pondicherry in South India where they landed, French Jesuits joined their Portuguese “brothers in Christ” in the Madurai Mission (Mission du Maduré), established at the end of the 16th century and  famous for the special conversion strategy that had be applied there from 1606 onward. Today known under the name of “accommodation”, the strategy consisted in teaching Christianity as if it were a particular form of local religious practices. Roberto Nobili (1577-1656) an Italian Jesuit who worked under the instructions of his superior Alberto Laerzio and inspired by the ideas of Alessandro Valignano, transformed himself and his teaching to fit expectations and norms of the local religious expressions.  He and other Jesuits from that time, such as Thomas Stephens, Francesc Roz, Jerome Xavier,  Heinrich Roth, Johann Ernst von Hanxleden, (etc) invested their time and finances in learning Tamil, Sanskrit, Syriac, Telugu, Konkani, Marathi and Persian in order to engage local languages and literary idioms in presenting Christianity. Some also transformed their own personas (from head to feet) into local religious practitioners.  While Nobili, for example, took as a model a Brahman learned renouncer sannyasi, most of the others such as the most famous Italian in the mission who became a Tamil poet (pulavar) Costanzo Giuseppe Beschi (1680-1746) took a paṇṭāracāmi garb presenting himself as a non-Brahman teacher.

The result was a well-known global missionary quarrel (Malabar and Chinese rites quarrel) that became one of the reasons for the suppression of the Society of Jesus. It is also a reason of production of texts, some of which in Tamil, Telugu, Syriac, Marathi, Konkani (etc.) became important Christian literary texts. The missionary controversy regarding acceptable life-cycle rituals to be included into Christian social and liturgical rules was partly provoked by the struggle between the Portuguese Padroado and the Papacy, but in great part, and perhaps in the most virulent language, the quarrel was also raging between French missionary orders in India – Capuchins and Mission étrangers de Paris against Jesuits. Other important factors that are only now beginning to be studied are Indian convert and catechists who were the ultimate responsible for the shape of Indian Christian idiom.

French Capuchin Mission and MEP in India

French Capuchin missionaries were active in Persia and India from the early 17th century. They too learnt vernacular languages and were ready to “adapt” to local political and social customs when it was necessary. They famously adapted their Church in Madras (Chennai) to please the British Anglicans. However, in Pondicherry, they confronted Jesuits and became staunch anti-accommodation voices. One of the most virulent opponents to the Jesuits was an enigmatic character, an ex-Capuchin Norbert de Bar-le-duc ( alias abbé Platel and Pierre Parisot). They were also joined in Pondicherry with missionaries sent by the Missions étrangères de Paris (MEP), an association of priests sent by the French King and the Papacy with a special mission to educate and establish indigenous clergy and bishops, and reclaim the territory traditionally in Portuguese Padroado hands. Jean Jacques Tessier de Quéraley, a Capuchin and the Procurator for the MEP in Pondicherry wrote a scathing attack on the Jesuit accommodation to the Malabar rites.

The three French missionary orders – Jesuits, Capuchins and MEP missionaries -  uneasily cohabited in the late 17th and 18th century in Pondicherry and in other French settlements. The political setting of the French colonies was conducive to controversies between the religious actors. MEP and Capuchins opposed the Jesuits in Pondicherry as well as their “Mission du Carnate,” which was an offshoot of the Madurai Mission and practiced accommodation in the region to the west and north of Pondicherry. Less controversial, but important was the “mission du Bengale” with its seat in Chandernagor. Discalced Carmelites also established their presence in the Malabar region, among the St. Thomas Christians, under the double protection of Rome and the Dutch in the mid-17th century.

Although the strategy of accommodation had been formally prohibited in in the mid-18th century, all missionary orders residing outside of the main European colonial settlements continued to accommodate tacitly and carefully Church rituals and social customs to the local Christian communities.


Published in january 2022