Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Misguided Missionary?

Shrine of St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552) 
Jesuit missionary in India, Indonesia, Japan, & China
The shrine is in the Church of the Gesù in Rome,
and contains one of the arm bones of Francis Xavier.

The name of the person we know as Francis Xavier is more properly called "Francisco de Xavier", although his birth name was Francisco de Jaso y Azpilicueta y Javier.  Son of aristocratic parents in the Kingdom of Navarre, there's little mention of his early life beyond the fact that he was educated in Spain, then moved to Paris for advanced studies at the Collège de Sainte-Barbe.  Here he met Pierre Favre who, with Francis and four other students, joined Ignatius of Loyola, later a saint also, in forming the Society of Jesus.  The "S.J.'s" were to become a formidable academic and spiritual force in the Church and the world for centuries to come.  

After completing his studies, Francis Xavier taught for a time in Paris, then moved on to Venice where he cared for the sick in hospitals.  He was ordained a priest, along with Ignatius, in 1537, then moved to Rome where he worked until John III, King of Portugal, enlisted him, in 1540, to missionize the people of the East Indies.  Arriving in Lisbon in June, 1540, he carried on ministry there until he sailed for Goa, India in April, 1541, actually arriving in early May, 1542.  He worked for three years in West India.  We get a hint of the scope of his endeavor there from a letter he wrote to Ignatius in 1543:

"...As to the numbers who become Christians, you may understand them from this, that it often happens to me to be hardly able to use my hands from the fatigue of baptizing: often in a single day I have baptized whole villages. Sometimes I have lost my voice and strength altogether with repeating again and again the Credo and the other forms. The fruit that is reaped by the baptism of infants, as well as by the instruction of children and others, is quite incredible. These children, I trust heartily, by the grace of God, will be much better than their fathers..."

Subsequently, Francis Xavier travelled to the Molucca Islands and to Malacca, where, in 1547, he met a Japanese gentleman, Angir, who told him all about Japan.  It took a whole two years more before Francis finally arrived in Kagoshima, Japan.  After spending a year learning Japanese and translating the basic documents of the faith, he moved into the central area of Japan.  In 1552 he moved back to India and set his sights on eventually missionizing China, having heard much about the Celestial Empire.  In September, 1552 Francis neared the island of Sancian on the China coast.  By late fall he had become so ill on the ship that he had to be transferred to land.  A rude hut was hastily thrown together to shelter him, and it was here on the island of Sancian that he died, December 3, 1552, at the age of 46.

Francis Xavier was and is a controversial figure.  Even taking him in the context of being a man of his time and culture, his letters reflect a missionary approach which, at best, was often completely disrespectful of indigenous people and their customs, and, at worst, was tyrannical and just plain wrong.  Though it wasn't initiated until some eight years after his death, the Inquisition at Goa was set up largely at the urging of Francis Xavier.  There can be no question that in his heart, Francis was indefatigable and zealous for God's cause.  He was obviously imbued, however, with extremely faulty missiological know-how: a too-often repeated bittersweet story in the Church's past history.  Hopefully we have learned better today. 

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