by Emily Witsberger
Boston College’s own Rev. Jeremy Clarke, S.J., Assistant Professor of History, has contributed yet another addition to the bridge connecting the West to China. His most recent publication, The Virgin Mary and Catholic Identities in Chinese History, sheds a light on Catholicism in China, exploring how the artistic representations of the Virgin Mary tie into Chinese history and culture. Last week The Torch had the opportunity to sit down with one of BC’s most popular Jesuit professors to discuss the paths that have preceded this publication, as well as where he sees his ministry going from here.
The Sydney native acknowledges that a variety of professors had a profound impact on him and his decisions following graduation from his Jesuit high school. Having received a solid foundation in Chinese language and history throughout his secondary education, Fr. Clarke knew from a young age that he was interested in learning more about Chinese culture and helping stimulate a similar understanding in those outside of the country. While it might have been easier to engage in other areas of focus, Clarke feels fortunate for having been able to pursue Chinese studies upon entering the Jesuit Novitiate. During his time as a Scholastic he tutored Chinese as part of a school work-placement, and upon reaching the Regency stage he was able to teach Chinese at a high school for two years.
He chose pragmatically to pursue a PhD in Asian and Pacific History at the Australian National University, a secular institution. “I did the doctorate because I wanted to get in touch with Chinese Catholic communities,” he says, “and it’s still very difficult to be a foreign priest working in China.” Approaching academia in this secular sense gave him an external credibility allowing him to circumvent issues faced by members of the religious community in trying to enter China.
As a culmination of aspects of work and research he has gathered in the past several decades, then, Clarke’s newest book explores works of art in Chinese culture, focusing on the Virgin Mary, that date back several centuries to the founding of the Chinese Catholic Church. Importantly, the book serves as a source of both pride and empowerment for the communities with which he has been so personally involved.
“It’s a treasuring of the story of the Chinese Catholic communities,” says Clarke. He notes that the beauty of Christianity, and in fact a strength of the Catholic Church over the centuries, has been its attention to the aesthetic world such as liturgical music (think of Handel’s Messiah) or great feats of art (think of the stained glass at Chartres).
“I think all of this is reminding us that the world is a spirit, uplifting us, challenging us, inspiring us. God is always at work in the world, and we, too, are meant to be creating and helping bring about beauty.”
Such empowerment can help to enable a greater understanding between cultures, such that both outsiders and people from within the country can recognize what can be gained from relationships across religion and across culture.
During his time at Boston College, Clarke has been active in promoting such cross-cultural understanding. His ministry to the BC community has extended far beyond teaching several classes per semester, while earning a 9.7 PEPS rating in doing so. Outside of the classroom, his commitment to stimulating students’ interest in areas of culture in which they might not have considered otherwise has been far reaching. Some of his main contributions have included curating the Burns Library exhibition Binding Friendship: Ricci, China and Jesuit Cultural Learnings, creating and producing a documentary on Matteo Ricci’s works in China, and, more recently, organizing the China Watching Series on campus.
While the projects and opportunities he has been able to pursue at BC have been vast, he acknowledges that discernment between goods has been a challenge at times. In terms of what he does, the demands of professorship can render difficult the demands of ministry to the Chinese Catholic community. “After all,” he observes, “every hour you’re doing one thing, you’re not doing another.” However, Clarke will be switching gears in the near future and returning to the continent on which his journey as a steward of the Jesuit mission began.
Upon his return to the Eastern Hemisphere, Clarke will be able to concentrate his attention once more upon service to the Chinese Catholic community. Several of his aims will include seeking to establish and strengthen connections within church communities, as well as aiding the efforts of others interested in facilitating charitable works in Catholic dioceses. This could include not only members of religious orders but doctors, nurses and students interested in social work or foreign ministry. He notes that his efforts in bridging communities will extend beyond China to places such as East Timor, Cambodia, and Burma as well.
BC students and faculty alike will surely be sad to see him leave next year. However, his presence across the Pacific Ocean will, of course, make a tremendous impact. As of 2012 there were 143 Jesuits comprising the Australian Province, which, Clarke notes, is fewer members than in the two zip codes centered on Boston College. Upon returning to Australia, the number of lives he will be able to touch and cultural bridges he will help to forge will only continue to grow. Without a doubt, Clarke exemplifies what it means for us to live as “men and women for others.”
Clarke’s new book is currently available through the Hong Kong University Press, and is set for release in November by the Columbia University Press.