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St Francis Xavier and the 21st century

Nearly five hundred years later, he remains relevant to today's generations

St Francis Xavier and the 21st century
Desmond de Sousa CSsR, Goa

December 2, 2011

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Thousands of pilgrims from all over India will throng to the Jesuit-run Basilica of Bom Jesu in Old Goa tomorrow to mark the Feast of St Francis Xavier. There his sacred remains reside in a glass-paneled silver casket for pilgrims to revere. But to what extent is this 16th century apostle of Asia still relevant to our times? Francis Xavier (born April 6, 1506) arrived in Goa on May 6, 1542. Just one decade of missionary work made him one of the best-known saints in the history of the Church. He died on December 2, 1552, on the island of Sancian, near the coast of China. Both accolades and criticisms of the saint have accumulated over nearly five centuries since his death. His burning zeal to “Go and set all on fire” (the parting words of his mentor St Ignatius) drove him to travel over 80,000 kilometers to people and places unknown to him. Criticisms include that the saint was prejudiced against Indians because he opposed their recruitment to the priesthood. St Francis Xavier was a poor linguist and could not have possibly converted the more than 10,000 souls attributed to him. He also brought Portuguese imperialism to India along with Christianity, though preceded in the latter respect by St Thomas.


 Francis Xavier described his method of evangelization in a letter to the Jesuits in Rome. “As they do not understand me, nor I them, their native language being Tamil and mine Basque, I sought out the more literate among them and chose some who knew our language (Portuguese) as well as theirs. “Then after many days and meetings and much labour, we translated (the prayers) into their language and committed them to memory. I went all over the place with a bell, and collected as many children and adults as I could. After I had brought them together, I taught them twice each day, until, after one month, they had learnt the prayers.” Some of Francis Xavier’s Jesuit confreres who arrived in India after him employed much different methods of evangelization. Robert di Nobili (1577 –1656) started his mission in Madurai city in 1606. He mastered the Tamil language, memorized the Vedas in Sanskrit, dressed and lived as a sanayasi, or Hindu mendicant, and strove to inculturate Christianity in the temple city of Madurai among the upper-caste Brahmins. His mission was later developed by fellow Jesuits St John de Britto (1647–1693) and Fr Joseph Beschi (1680 – 1747). Fr Constans Lievens (1856 – 95) worked among the adivasis (local tribals) of Chota Nagpur, in central India. At the time these tribal people were being deprived of their ancestral land by the landlords of the area. How does one assess the effectiveness of such radical differences in the methods of evangelization? Jesuit Fr Aloysius Pieris explains that the core of any religion is the liberative experience that brought that religion into being. Religious beliefs, practices, traditions and institutions are the means to communicate this particular liberative core experience to future generations of adherents. Otherwise the religion fades into mere external ritual like a body without a soul. Did Francis Xavier’s method of evangelization communicate the liberative core experience to his converts? Or did the mass conversion strategy of the Portuguese colonizers, usually associated with him, merely communicate the external rituals?

St Francis and the Church in Asia

The Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences have defined the uniqueness of the Asian continent from Latin America and Africa. With its counterparts in the global South, Asia has “islands of wealth in oceans of poverty.” But unlike them, Asia is the cradle of all the major world religions that are in a process of revival and resurgence. Asian identity is the point where religion and poverty coalesce: Poverty is not a mere economic concept, but a religious value. In Asia a deeply religious person must of necessity be a voluntarily poor person. Therefore, the Asian Bishops mandated the Church of Asia to become the “Church of the Poor.” Would all this sound alien to St Francis Xavier who came from the present-day rich global North to the poor global South? He certainly opted for the poor when he left his noble class status of wealth and education in Europe to work among the poor pearl fishermen of south India. He would certainly be very happy with a Church for the poor; that is, a Church with a preeminent pastoral concern for the poor so that they could be converted to the faith. But would he be distinctly uncomfortable with a Church of the poor “that makes use of the talents and gifts of the poor, relying on them in the mission of salvation,” in the words of Blessed John Paul II, given the colonial, triumphalist mindset of the Tridentine Church of his times? Evaluating St Francis Xavier’s relevance to today’s Church amid the myths and realities that have accumulated since his death is a daunting task. But certain aspects of his multifaceted personality and his missionary zeal in Asia are beyond doubt. The choice of some of these aspects and the reflection on their relevance for our times in the India and Asia of the 21st century mark St Francis Xavier as a man for all times.
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