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41 A Franciscan missionary who lived in Cave Gully in the early twentieth century published a story he had heard about a Chinese priest sent by Bishop Giovacchino Salvetti in the early nineteenth century to give confession and communion to Christians who had been exiled to Yili, beyond the Gobi desert. The priest set off, riding a mule, and came to the Great Wall. But then seeing before him an immense desert, it was unclear which way he should go, and he hardly expected to find the guide that the bishop had promised him. And then, lo and behold, a great wolf came from the other side and set out. The mule which the priest was riding followed the wolf of its own accord all that day, and at dusk the priest came to a place where some herders had pitched their tents. The wolf disappeared and that night the priest was a guest there. The next morning he set out and there was the wolf who had led him to the tents.1 The wolf led the priest for sixty days until he came to the place where the exiled Christians were living, and then brought him safely home again. When the priest returned, he went to report to the bishop, but before he could speak Salvetti asked him, “Was the wolf a good guide?”2 The Christians debated whether the wolf was really an angel, a demon, or a soul from purgatory, but the bishop said that it was simply a wolf acting according to the will of God. The wolf is the stuff of legend: a magical creature that guides the hero across the desert. Barnaba Nanetti, who collected many oral chapter 2 The Bishop and the Wolf 9780520273115_PRINT.indd 41 9780520273115_PRINT.indd 41 27/04/13 3:46 PM 27/04/13 3:46 PM 42 | The Bishop and the Wolf histories in the area in the 1890s, heard another version of the story in which the wolf follows the priest’s mule, making itself “a companion like a faithful dog, so he was also pleased since he was sure that no rogue would dare accost him in the sight of such a terrifying animal.”3 Wolves were much feared in Shanxi for snatching children and causing serious injuries to adults. People called them spirits (shen) and they fit easily in a folktale.4 But the story of a wolf sent to guide the priest also has another source in the legends of medieval Europe, which tell of how Francis of Assisi spoke to a wolf that had been attacking the townsfolk of Gubbio. The saint persuaded the wolf to promise, by raising its paw, that if the people fed it every day it would no longer attack them.5 Chinese villagers who told the story of the priest led by a wolf were also comparing the Franciscan missionary bishop, Giovacchino Salvetti, to Francis. The story shows his holiness and spiritual powers, but it was also handed down because after his death praising Salvetti was a way of criticizing the behavior of later missionaries.6 This is a story about the clergy. Jacobus Wang, whose name had been forgotten but whose letters in the archives in Rome tell us that he was the priest who made this dangerous journey, did so to provide rituals that only a priest can perform: confession and mass. These are rituals that are often seen as central to Catholicism, but they were largely absent in the early Catholic communities in central Shanxi. The first priests to live permanently in the area arrived in the second half of the eighteenth century. Like Jacobus Wang most of them were locally trained Chinese men, though there were also Chinese priests who had been trained in Naples and a few European Franciscan missionaries. Their presence made confession and mass possible: they spread these new rituals and they earned their living from them. So a story about the holiness and courage of priests is also inevitably about the importance of confession and mass. Long and dangerous journeys shaped the lives of these priests and of the merchants for whom they worked. We too easily assume that Chinese Christians stayed in one place and European missionaries came to them. In fact Christian conversion had been built along existing networks of long-distance trade that linked Europe to China and exile spread some Christians into parts of Central Asia and beyond. The followers of the Lord of Heaven...


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