St. Francis and the Asian Catholic Church

Author: Irene Iarocci

St. Francis and the Asian Catholic Church

Irene Iarocci

Ministers need sound knowledge, consistent life

On Our Lady's day in August 1549, Francis Xavier set out on his challenging, courageous and exciting venture, "in peace and in good health", to borrow the words of the missionary saint.

He was "a person with whom every young man identifies because of his totally up-to-date outlook, for by disposition he was adventurous, liked risks and found satisfaction in forging ahead by trial and error, despite mistakes due to inexperience".

"Once he had arrived in Asia, confident that all would go well, he expected a harvest of good results.

"Then little by little, in India and Japan, he came to realize that it was pointless preaching the Gospel if it meant tearing up a people's roots. He found that it was essential to penetrate the subtlest nuances of vocabulary and language and to respect a nation's culture, tradition and soul if the waters of Baptism are to make spirituality flourish anew.

"At the end of his life, ardently longing to take the Gospel message to China, he understood that only by recognizing Christ in others could he make the Lord known to the Chinese, Japanese or Indians.

"His true desire was to lead others to encounter with God. He was discovering what was later to have a name: inculturation. In groping his way, he gradually marked out the path for Matteo Ricci.

"One ultra-modern feature distinguished his progress to the door of China. He had become aware that others are radically different, or rather, as Lévinas was to say, that the face is the epiphany of a mystery that surpasses us.

"Furthermore, in the globalization of our time, Francis Xavier offers an alternative: he who grappled with problems of translation and misunderstanding that gave rise to a series of misconstructions, sometimes funny, sometimes serious, shows us a catholicity that is unity in diversity".

We have Fabrice Hadjadj, a writer and lecturer in philosophy and literature, to thank for the above intense, concentrated and convincing spiritual analysis of the companion of St. Ignatius, to whom the West is indebted for spreading knowledge of those Japanese Islands, unknown until then.

Hadjadj's analysis has impelled us to delve into Francis Xavier's correspondence to find, in his own words, a profile of what we might describe as a "Japan according to Francis Xavier".

We start by saying that having acquired some experience, the pioneer of all subsequent knowledge of things Japanese explained with a keen sense of humour: "There is so much to write about Japan that one would never finish... it is reassuring that those bored by reading can escape boredom by putting the book down" (cf. Letter from Cochin, 29 January 1552, in Dalle terre dove sorge it sole. Francesco Saverio, Lettere e documenti dall'Oriente, 1535-1552, edited by Adriana Caboni, Cittá Nuova Editrice, Rome, 2002, p. 374).

Eagerness to learn

We have attempted to sketch some of the main traits that reveal the acuteness and timeliness of many aspects of Xavier's analysis.

During his stay in Malacca and having received information on the recently discovered large islands of Japan, in introducing Anjirô, the man with whom he most frequently conversed, Xavier notes: "If all the Japanese are as eager to learn as Anjiró, it seems to me that of all the peoples in the lands so far discovered, they must be the most curious....

"I asked Anjirô whether the inhabitants of Japan would become Christian if I went with him to his Country: he answered that... they would not instantly convert to Christianity, and he told me that they would first ply me with questions, then ponder on what I answered them... and especially on whether I practised what I preached.

"And if I were to do these two things, to speak effectively, satisfying their questions, and to live without giving them any cause for reproach, about six months after they had met me, the king and the nobility as well as all other discerning people would become Christian.

"He told me that the Japanese are people whose actions are dictated by reason alone" (cf. Letter from Cochin, 20 January 1548, op. cit., pp. 209-210).

In fact, today too, the eagerness to satisfy curiosity seems to be far from appeased: might it not have been to respond to the desire for knowledge and to satisfy curiosity that the Katolikku Shinbun [a Japanese newspaper] published a photograph of two crabs, whose shells have a cross-shaped mark, with the caption: "Crabs blessed by Francis Xavier"?

Nor could we resist the desire to find out more about them.

The Japanese weekly explained that many Catholics in the city of Goa and the Western regions of India are still convinced that a rare species of local crab, on whose shell can be seen natural markings in the form of a cross, is a descendant of the crabs blessed by Francis Xavier.

In February 1546, Francis' ship ran into a bad storm in the eastern part of Indonesia. Intending to calm the tempest, the saint took the cross and threw it into the sea.

The next morning, while strolling on the beach of the Island of Selam, he saw several crabs crawling towards him with the cross he had entrusted to the ocean waves the previous day. Xavier fell to his knees, took the cross with devotion and blessed the crabs carrying it.

As Hadjadj clearly points out, Xavier's hesitation was very human: "I have not yet decided whether in a year and a half I myself will go to Japan... or whether I will rather send two companions there" (op. cit., p. 214).

On 20 June 1549, after rolling a dice, he wrote: "I am informing you that I am going to Japan, having heard of the great inclination in those places to increase our holy faith".

In the sacred zeal of his decision, Xavier slipped into an amusing inexactitude: "We three Portuguese [he himself, Cosme de Torres and Giovanni Fernandez were all Spaniards!] and three Japanese... all three are Christians in Goa" (op. cit., p. 288).

Perilous voyages

As for the journey, he was not afraid of what awaited him, and with few words offered this realistic view: "The journey is very dangerous because of the violent storms, the many shaols and the hordes of pirates, but especially because of the storms: indeed, when three ships sail from a port in these places, if two arrive safely it is a great good fortune" (op. cit., p. 305).

"From our experience in Japan, I am letting you know what we have managed to learn about this Country: first of all, the people to whom we have spoken so far are as yet the best we have discovered.... These people are excellent conversationalists, generally good and not mischievous... they are extraordinarily honest and hold honour in higher esteem than anything else; they are poor on the whole, but neither the nobles nor the populace consider poverty shameful....

"They tell us a lot about Miyako, but I will consider it true when I have experienced it.... I am very confident that before two years have passed I will be able to write to Your Grace [Don Pedro Da Silva, son of the explorer Vasco da Gama] that we have a church dedicated to Our Lady in Miyako, so that all who come to Japan can commend themselves to Our Lady of Miyako during storms at sea...", Xavier wrote in the flowing letter he sent to Europe from Kogoshima, dated 5 November 1549, recommending to his brethren and readers the importance of remembering always the Lord's words: "What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?" (Mt 16:26).

And on 29 January 1552 he wrote more specifically: "The Japanese are a people with a high opinion of themselves... a people that does not think much of any other foreign people... very belligerent. There are quite a number of men and women in the Country who are professed religious. The men call one another 'bonze'...".

In a letter to the Father Provincial of Lisbon, dated 30 January that same year, Xavier listed the qualities future missionaries being sent to the archipelago in the Far East would need: "It would be good if you could send some men from Flanders or Germany because they are used to the cold and to hard work... and encourage them to be well versed in philosophy and dialectics, so that they can perplex in discussion and catch any discrepancies by the bonzes who live at the university....

"They will constantly have to hear the arguments of someone or other; they will be held in great contempt; they will have no time for meditation or contemplation; they will not say Mass at first for they will not have what they need for it... they will have virtually no time to recite the Office, for I know by experience that they will be constantly bothered by people coming to visit and talk to them. Furthermore, they will be invited to the homes of the nobility who will take it amiss when they excuse themselves, as they do not accept any excuses kindly.

"Things will go in such a way that they will have no time either to eat or to sleep... believe me, this has been thoroughly proven" (op. cit., pp. 381-383).

It was Xavier who pointed out to Valignano and Ricci the work to be continued, correctly estimating the close cultural relationship between China and Japan: "If the Japanese know that the Chinese have accepted God's law, they will more quickly lose the faith they have in their own sects...".

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
17 January 2007, page 10

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