The Italian Jesuit Alongsider to South India

Editor’s Note: It’s now one week until the 2022 Rethinking Forum conference begins on July 22nd, 2022. The assembled program will be excellent, with topics ranging from two historical studies (including a biography on Robert de Nobili, the subject of this essay); Indian arts, dance, and music; stories of alongsiding with families and college students, and so much more. More so, RF22 has been designed to foster connections amongst our community, and we’d love to have you join us. We are still able to receive reservations for RF22, especially the digital option and the commuter option for those in DFW. Reservations will remain open through Thursday, July 21st. Sign up here. We hope to have you join us. – The Editor

Robert de Nobili takes us back to a time of Catholic influence and colonization in India well before the arrival of the British protestants, with de Nobili serving as a Jesuit missionary in India for decades in the early 1600’s. His polarizing life and ministry bear witness to him as a pioneer of communicating the good news of Lord Jesus amongst Hindu people…and yet discouragingly, experiencing setbacks due to conflict that would be common to many who came after.

Life Of Lowering

Born to nobility, de Nobili came from a very wealthy Italian family. Some relatives held high, influential positions in both the government and the Catholic church. de Nobili, however, felt called to serve the Lord in Asia and he renounced his family pedigree and the aspiration of military glory to pursue a life of service with the Catholic church. 

After becoming a Jesuit missionary, de Nobili traveled to India in 1605.  Controversially, he would further renounce himself and take on the lifestyle of Brahmin Sanyasi, a priestly spiritual aesthetic. His lifestyle choices were drastic and all-encompassing, including the food that he ate, the type of home that he lived in, and his manner of interacting with others. de Nobilii embraced an identity within Hindu culture of somebody who has detached themselves from the desires of the world to pursue deeper spiritual devotion.

Life Of Learning

de Nobili’s desire to learn is a great example for all alongsiders. He devoted much of his time to learning language, culture and the Hindu scriptures. Even the Hindu Brahmin priests serving at the famous Madurai temple were known to acclaim de Nobili’s grasp of their scriptures and language. This eventually resulted in many Hindu people seeking audience with de Nobili to hear his thoughts on spiritual matters. 

Life Of Sorrow

During de Nobili’s time in India he experienced challenge after challenge in an almost constant barrage of difficulties. Health challenges constantly plagued him and his colleagues. Much of the opposition and persecution he faced came from within his own organization, the Jesuit order and the Catholic church, and other fellow missionaries. Those who were supposed to be on his “team” continually undermined his labors.

De Nobili was criticized from all directions for his efforts in communicating about Lord Jesus in culturally appropriate ways to Hindus. One of the biggest controversies was ultimately appealed all the way up to the Pope for deliberation! During the years of waiting for the Pope’s judgment, he was even outright banned from sharing about Lord Jesus with anyone at all!

Despite overwhelming obstacles, de Nobili’s faith and perseverance produced encouraging spiritual responses among many people in South India both during his life and beyond. Robert de Nobili’s life and service is a fascinating case study worthy of study for modern day alongsiders.

Learn more about Robert de Nobili and how he earned the nickname the “White Brahmin” at the 2022 Rethinking Forum!

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