“Lettere dal Mondo,” letters from the world, by Gianni Criveller
Gianni Criveller (*) is a strange phenomenon; believe me. One year ago, I met him in Hong Kong. We had a dinner at FCC (our host was Angelo Paratico; who else?), and I was struck by his personality. Not immediately, I have to say, but along the development of the long discussion we had while eating Hainan chicken, white rice and fruit salad. He looked like a good listener, humble, attentive, and one, at first, might be induced to underestimate him (actually, we overestimate those who speak loudly and undervalue those who know how to listen, it is a bad natural habit).
Suddenly, Gianni came out with sharp and deep considerations, something I didn’t expect, impressive and notable. Some synthesises that are impossible if you don’t have a culture, a comprehensive experience, and a very rapid intelligence.
There was a kind of discrepancy in him, I thought, a continuous change of perspective I was forced to. Sometimes he was like a young man, a sort of low profile journalist or teacher, and, after an instant, he was a real Professor, assertive, able to explain complicated issues and passages, draw impressive pictures of a particular situation, and formulate difficult questions. Sometimes he looked like shy; sometimes he was calm and authoritative like an aged boss.
Moreover, his knowledge of China and Asia was (is) unique—yes, I felt the entire weight of my ignorance, and the Hainan chicken’s lack of taste didn’t help me at all.
He gave me four books about Matteo Ricci and the other Italian missionaries in Asia, and a historical novel, “Silence,” by Shusaku Endo, which I strongly recommend to you. I confess I then devoured those books wrestling with a guilty conscience.
After a few meetings—in the meantime our friendship grew up like the pile of books we exchanged—he disappeared for six months, lost in full-immersion sessions somewhere in the world, out of Asia. Finally, last summer, he appeared again in a place called S’Archittu, in the western coast of Sardinia, that for me, coming from the secluded Barbagia, was distant and inexplicable as if it was California. Also, the colours were different there, the plants, the land, and Gianni’s expression too, younger and more relaxed, fitting with the clear morning, the palms and the sense of estrangement.
Gianni in S’Archittu? What was he doing there?
During four days of tour along Sardinia—I should have been his enlightened guide—I understood that it was he who was guiding me around. Unknown churches appeared from behind the hills, and metaphysical cemeteries too; unfriendly parish priests became chatty, and busy tourist office employers found the time to open forgotten museums and offer us a glass of 14,5-degree-red-wine, in the morning. We saw colourful processions; we ate tasted and fresh fish in mountain villages; we discovered archaeological sites near anonymous speedways. Also, during an afternoon still and sunny like a Mexican dream, we dealt with a sudden and violent storm. We were talking about the role of the missionaries in the present society, I remember, and the oaks that lined the road between Bitti and Benetutti in the middle of a nowhere tableland unexpectedly became dark like in a tale of witches. The rising rain bent the trees and pushed our Toyota Micra as if it were a toy car.
Rain is a benediction in Sardinia, but, you know, the appearance of the supernatural is always frightening for humans.
You understand why I said that Gianni Criveller is a strange phenomenon, and that, when I receive a piece from him, I read it with a particular attention: you never know.
So, I got “Lettere dal mondo,” an article by him, and as soon as I started reading it, I understood that it would have been another great surprise. In fact, the piece describes the organization of the Jesuits in order to share the different information coming from the various parts of the world, to organize and file them. In the past, of course, when the correspondence was made using manuscript letters and envelopes, and starting from the sixteen century, when a letter from Asia maybe took one year to reach Rome and vice versa.
I was an expert of corporate and business organization, and one of the main, recurrent topics in my job was just about the problems that occur between a centre (for instance, the headquarter of a group) and the peripheries (the foreign branches, the various facilities around the world, etc.) and among the peripheries too. How to preserve values and a unique culture (il carattere specifico della Compagnia)? How to avoid centrifugal forces? In which way to create a centripetal force to oppose the natural slippages and the risk of drifting? How to control? Which kind of centripetal force works for a long time? How to share the information efficiently and how to keep them at disposition, when they are needed?
There are dozens of books and manuals about these topics, and all the best companies have their own procedures, of course, but in any case the problem is huge also today. It is not only a matter of tools, but of hard and soft organization, that means processes, rules, intelligence, rigidity and flexibility, added value, etc.
As Gianni wrote in his article, nowadays we have powerful means to build a network, to send information rapidly, to file and disclosure them. Internet is a real web. However, the problem of an effective and efficient communication within an organization still exists today and creates delays, misunderstandings, lost opportunities, losses, etc. You can reflect about the flows of information inside of a secret service, for example, a government, or only a multinational company. Every day the newspapers report about leaks and problems linked with communication.
Now, the Jesuits faced this problem five centuries ago and found a way, built a system to manage it in the best way possible. The Societate Iesu created and followed a set of procedures (for example, the most significant letters were written in three copies because each trip was dangerous and uncertain), a plan and timing to send the manuscripts, and not only from the various peripheries to Rome, but also among the complex structures of the Company (the provinces and vice-provinces, the missions, the Assistances, the colleges, the publishing companies, all the different stakeholders, etc.). During the two centuries that Gianni takes into consideration, the letters reached the total amount of hundreds of thousands, even though most of them, the vast majority even, have been lost (about a third of the missionaries died during the journey from Europe to Asia and vice versa).
Moreover, the Jesuits invented a system to file the letters, and a large space in the Archivio Centrale della Compagnia di Gesù, in Borgo Santo Spirito, in Rome, is dedicated to the correspondence with the far eastern missions.
Gianni’s article is fascinating and engaging—like all his books and discussions. And a natural consideration emerges concerning these men of culture, like Gianni Criveller, who are a real asset for a country, for a nation that wants to improve, to preserve the history and knowledge, and nurture new generations of young. Men of culture who actually haven’t a well-recognized position and fame in a community that privileges other trivial values. A fair and intelligent country should valorise them preserving and defending their studies and results.
I hope that Gianni Criveller would translate his article in English—please.
I hope that he would write a great historical novel about the missionaries in Asia—B39 would be proud to launch it.
I hope to spend other days in Sardinia with him, discovering forgotten heroes in forgotten graveyards, during afternoons that speak to your soul.
(*) Gianni Criveller is a long-time Hong Kong resident and religious scholar. He had spent 22 years in Greater China and is currently Professor at The Holy Spirit Seminar College of Theology and Philosophy in Hong Kong, and Honorary research Associate at the Centre for Catholic Studies at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. He obtained a Doctorate in Dogmatic Theology at The San Thomas Aquinas Theological Faculty of Naples, with a thesis on early Jesuits’ China missions. Professor Criveller presided over the historical commission for the beatification of Matteo Ricci, the great China missionary. His books include “Preaching Christ in Late Ming China” and “From Milan to Hong Kong, 150 years of Mission.”