PASTOR ALLWIN JOHNSON - FRANCIS XAVIER: A SHORT BIOGRAPHY
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FRANCIS XAVIER: A SHORT BIOGRAPHY

 

PASTOR ALLWIN JOHNSON

 

INTRODUCTION

 

            Francis Xavier was undoubtedly one of the greatest missionaries whom the Europe had ever sent. He was a rare phenomena who appears in the world once in several centuries.[1] He made an indelible impact on Indian Christianity with in his four plus years of ministry in India. This paper intends to trace the life history of Francis Xavier and his mission to the Indian subcontinent. Within the chronological flow of history, the paper also deals with Xavier's missions and mission methods in India.

GROUND PREPARATION – PORTUGUESE MISSION TO INDIA

            In a significant Bull of 1493, Pope Alexander VI drew a line on the Atlantic ocean and gave the west to Spain and the east to Portugal. He commanded them to “send to the sail lands and islands good men who fear God and are learned, skilled and expert, to instruct the inhabitants in the catholic faith and good morals.”[2] As a result, Portuguese sailor Vasco da Gama, landed in Calicut on 22 May 1498. Following him, came the governor Affonso de Albuquerque, and he captured Goa from the Sultan of Bijapur in 25 November 1510, and made that as the capital and the center of administration for all Portugal settlements in Asia.[3]

            From Goa, the Portuguese stations extended northwards and southwards along the coastal line. This include, on west Damaunn Bassein, Salsette, Bombay, Cannanare, Cranganore, Cochin and Quilon and on east Tuticorin, Nagapatnam and Mylapore. During this time, Pope Leo X, in 1514 granted the ecclesiastical patronage over Asia and Africa to Portugal. Thus, under padroado,[4] the Portuguese were doing a propagation of catholic faith among Indians. Under this Portuguese padroado, Francis Xavier, the first missionary of Jesuits came to India.

FRANCIS XAVIER – A MISSIONARY UNDER PROCESS

            Francis Xavier was born on 7 April 1506, as the youngest among three, in Castle Xavier in the kingdom of Naverre, Spain. His parents were Don Juan de Jassu y Atondo and Donna Maria de Azpilcueta y Aznarez. Xavier had received baptism with the name Francis de Xavier y Jassu.[5] His early childhood was happy and pleasant, at home with his parents, who loved him dearly. On 14 June 1522, he received tonsure[6] as a cleric of Pamplona. Then in 1529, his family decided to send him to Paris for studies because of its prestigious university.

            Xavier had made his mark in the university of St. Barbe as a sportsman and enjoyed much popularity. He got a roommate named Favre. He is six days junior than Xavier but already had taken the vow of perpetual chastity. Being a good friend of Favre, Xavier kept himself from the student follies. In the mean time, Ignatius Loyola[7] joined the study of Arts in the very college of St. Barbe and into the very room of Favre and Xavier. At first, when Xavier met Ignatius, he despised him for his impoverished way of living.[8]

            However, in 1533, Favre went outstation for seven months and during that time Xavier and Ignatius had to be together as never before. As a result, Xavier surrendered before the winning influence of Ignatius and became his lifelong disciple. After a heavy teaching from Ignatius, Xavier had converted his mind and heart completely to God and his mission. On 15 March 1530, he received his licentiate and in the following October had begun teaching in the college of St. Beauvais. On 15 August 1534, including Xavier, all seven of the Ignatius' disciples who were called as Jesuits, pledged themselves to live in celibacy and poverty and to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.[9] Later, Xavier was ordained as priest at Venice on 24 June 1537 and he conducted his first mass at Vicenza on 30 September 1537. Fortunately or unfortunately, war broke between Venice and the Turks. Hence, Xavier and his friends could not make out the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

FRANCIS XAVIER – MISSION TO INDIA

            During these times, Xavier had a dream as he says, “I was trying to hoist an Indian on my shoulders and he was such a deadly weight I couldn't lift him!”[10] Meanwhile, King John III (1521-57) of Portugal requested pope to send six priests to their territories in the east. Pope asked Ignatius to arrange and Ignatius asked Xavier and his friends to go. Xavier felt the fulfillment of his dream and told Ignatius, “Well then, forward! Here I am! Send me where you will.”[11] The group of missionaries reached Lisbon at the end of June 1540 and they met the King on March 1541. Meanwhile, the pope had appointed him as the Papal Nuncio to India and the Far East and has given him authority over all churches and missions in the Portuguese empire in the east.[12]

            After receiving the instructions from the King, the fleet of five ships set sail from Lisbon on 7 April 1541 with the governor of Goa, Affonso de Albuquerque. Xavier was 35 years old on that day. In sea journey, Xavier fell sick for two months and bled seven times. But when he got recovered, he became the ship's doctor, steward, nurse, evangelist, playmate, tutor, cook and judge for others.[13] Everybody in the ship called him in admiration Padre Santo, the holy priest. Finally, after thirteen months of journey, on 6 May 1542, they reached Goa in India.[14]

FRANCIS XAVIER – MISSION IN GOA

            When Xavier came to India, most of the highly placed civil and ecclesiastical authorities of the city and a large crowd were at the wharf to welcome him. There were already many churches and chapels, monasteries and convents, hospitals and asylums, villas, palaces and public buildings in Lisbon style. After meeting the Bishop in Goa John de Albuquerque, Xavier went to live in the Royal hospital to look after the sick and help the dying. “The awful contrasts of wealth and poverty provoked him to go from villa to villa, begging for the lepers and the destitute and the prisoners.”[15] He devised a method of his own to attract people and preach to them, as one of the writer describes,

He went up and down the streets and squares with a bell in his hand, crying to the children and others to come to the instruction. The novelty of proceedings, never seen in Goa, brought a large crowd around him which he then led to church... He began by singing the lessons which he had rhymed and then made the children sing them so that they might become the better fixed in their memories.[16]

            He did the same in leper asylums and prisons to preach the good news. But towards the end of September 1542, he left for south, as the governor of Goa, Dom Martim Afonso de Souza asked him to do. Why did the governor ask him to that? The reason is to nurture the Parava community. The coramandal coast from Cape Comorin to the island of Rameshwaram was inhibited by three or four castes of fishermen. These people were suppressed by the local rajahs and the Arab traders. In 1535, a Chetty convert of Calicut, Juan de Cruz saw the situation of Paravas and suggested them to convert to Christianity, so that they can get the protection of Portuguese. Paravas easily agreed and 20,000 of them were baptized in between 1535-1537.[17] But, thereafter they were abandoned without any Christian teachings. Later, the Portuguese realized the need of priests and requested the King and the Pope, which brought Xavier and friends to India.

FRANCIS XAVIER – MISSION IN SOUTHERN COASTAL VILLAGES

            Francis Xavier and three Indian clerics came to Manapad on October 1542. Here, he worked day and night to preach the gospel to people. Mostly he labored alone. As a writer says he had journeyed from village to village, traveling continually to and fro over a large district, across burning sands on foot, in tropic sunshine or in tropic rain. His garments were ravaged by white ants and the food was scarce and monotonous—a little rice, a little fish or a bowl of rice soup.[18] His special interests on children, drew crowds of children who were always around him. He did a restless labor as he was exited to be with Parava children and people. In one of his letters, he says,

   The children besieged me in such crowds that I had no time to say my office or to eat or to sleep. They clamored me to be taught some prayers ... and I taught them prayers... I was besieged by crowds of people who wanted me to come to their huts and pray for their sick... So I had the children to teach, baptisms to administer, prayers done into Tamil to memorize and the dead to bury. It was an endless round, but I had not the heart to deny any of those sacred requests lest my people's faith should suffer injury... I told the children who had memorized the Christian doctrine to take themselves to the homes of the sick and collect as many of the family and neighbors as possible, and to say the creed several times, assuring the sick persons that if they believed they would be cured.[19]

            Later, from Manapad, Francis went up to the coast of Tuticorin. He translated and by-hearted the creed, the commandments and most other catholic confessions in Tamil. But, his letters reveal that he had linguistic problem in Tamil. So he asked his assistants to learn Tamil to correct him often. Still, many of the old biographers assert that Xavier had a miraculous power which enabled him to speak in the language of whatever person he happened to address, but this has no proof.

            It is wrong to conclude Xavier as a Parava missionary because he had worked among Brahmins too. Although he tried his best, he found it hard to make Brahmins listen to him and accept the gospel.  It is written in a chapter on “St. Francis Xavier” published by the Catholic Truth Society of India that says, the Paravas listened to their apostle, but the Brahmin priests of the Hindu temples closed their ears to God's word. Francis Xavier could convert only one Brahmin, a young man, who undertook to teach catechism to children.[20]

            After being four months in Tuticorin, he moved down to the villages in the coastal region. He spent at least a year and a half in preaching and teaching to Paravas. He also took part in eradicating social evils. To eliminate the evil of drinking, in every region, he appointed some kind of police man as a representative of him. The policeman will get a fanom for every woman he catches drinking arrack and the offender will be put in lock-up for three days.[21] However, it is surprising to know, he caught only the women who drank on those days.

            Xavier was so popular among the Paravas and he was hesitant to leave them. But in November 1544, he had to leave for south. He went to Travencore, Kollam and Cochin and met the authorities for the protection of Christians. During that time, the Rajah of Jaffna massacred 600 Christians in Mannar, Ceylon. Xavier deeply grieved for the death of Mannar Christians.[22] To stop this killings, he requested the governor to send troops and punish the Raja of Jaffna, but nothing was done. Mean time, in January 1545, he got permission from Rajah of Travencore and preached to Mukkuvars who lived in Cape Comorin on Arabian seacoast. It's amazing that in a month of January, he baptized almost the whole tribe of Mukkuvars. In his letter dated 27 January 1545, he writes, “It was so that in a single month I baptized more than 10000 men and women and children.”[23] The method he followed as he describes in one of his letter,

   My method on arriving in a heathen village, was to assemble the man and boys apart, and to begin by teaching them to make the sign of the cross three times as a confession of faith in father, son and holy ghost, three persons in one God. I then recited in a loud voice the general confession, the creed, the commandments... and then I gave them instruction in Tamil. Next I required them one and all to ask pardon from God for the sins of their past lives... When they had finished, I asked them severally, young and old whether they believed every article... Thereupon I baptized each one, and handed them their new Christian name written on a slip of paper.[24]

            Xavier baptized a immense number of people, so it would not be possible for him to baptize everyone personally. He could have followed a sort of group baptism, with the whole group or village responding together to the questions asked.[25] After having so much of administrative troubles, Xavier had a pilgrimage to Mylapore in April 1545 and he spent a month of recollection, prayer, penance and vigils at the tomb of  St. Thomas. Then he traveled to Malacca and reached there at the end of September 1545. He worked out the same method of preaching at Malacca and other islands.

            On 13 January 1548, he returned to India and visited the fishery coast twice, but he didn't go beyond Cochin because the Franciscans were working among Syrian Christians. Although he didn't work among the Syrian Christians, he had good number of friends among the influential people of Malabar. In his letter to King John III, dated 26 January 1549, he appreciated Mar Abuna Jacob, who was an Bishop of Syrian Christians. Xavier also requested Pope to grant the needs of Abuna Jacob. But, he had given no hint about the impending calamities to the church in Malabar.

            On 15 April 1549, he again left India for Malacca and the unknown islands of Japan. He worked there for nearly three years and spread the Christian faith. After his ministries, he returned to India early in 1552. While he was in Japan, he planned to visit China and convert the Emperor himself. But china had banned all foreigners to enter its territory. So Xavier planned to go illegally with the Chinese traders. As per plan, in April 1552 he sailed from Goa and in August, he reached Sancian island which is six miles away from the Chinese coast. Every body left except two of his companions, but Xavier was stern in his plan to reach China with Gospel.

LAST DAYS OF FRANCIS XAVIER

            While he was waiting for the Chinese traders to come and smuggle him to Chinese territories, he became sick. On 21 November, he fell ill of fever. On Monday, 28 November 1552, he lost his power of speech and continued to be silent for three days, until noon of Thursday. But on Thursday noon, he regained his senses and repeated the words “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me.” Thus he survived till Saturday morning and finally became breathless before dawn, about 5.00 AM on Saturday, 3 December 1552. He was 46 years, seven months and twenty six days old.

            After his death, his body was temporarily buried in Sancian but in February 1553, his body was exhumed and taken to Malacca to bury there. Later it was secretly exhumed again by his friends and brought to Goa on 16 March 1554 and placed in the church in the college of St. Paul on 15 March 1554. Francis Xavier was beatified by Paul V in 1554 and canonized by Gregory XV in 1662 as the patron saint of foreign missions of the Catholic Church.

            Xavier had successfully finished his mission on earth leaving an ideal legacy for the missionaries to come. With in a shorter period of ten years, he converted about 700, 000 men to Christianity. He established schools for instruction of the neophytes and worked for the spiritual and material advancement of the converts.[26]

CONCLUSION

            Francis Xavier, a zealous Jesuit missionary left his native and its riches, to adopt sufferings and hard work, in order to fulfill the purpose of God in his life. Being like an Indian with Indians, he suffered toils, labors, dangerous journeys, meager diet, sleepless nights, disappointments and personal sacrifices. His passion for the mission had enabled him to achieve a lot within a short period of time. Having known the sacrifices of Xavier, it is a challenge before Indian Christians to labor for the Indian mission.



[1]M. Thomas, Christians and Christianity in Indian And Pakistan, (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1954), 54

[2]C.B. Firth, An Introduction to Indian Church History, (Delhi: ISPCK, 2005), 50

[3]Goa had been the capital of Portuguese settlements of East from 25th November 1510 to 19th December 1961, the merger of Goa with India.

[4]The padroado means the right to present candidates to bishoprics and other ecclesiastical offices, and correspondingly an obligation to maintain, staff and equip churches and mission. From C.B. Firth, An Introduction to Indian Church History, 51

[5]Xavier was called differently by various writers such as Chavier, Chavyeres, Echabier, Extaberri, Jabir, Javier, Saverio, Savierr, Saviere, Xabier, Xabiere, Xabierre, Xaverio, Xavier and Xaver. P. Rayanna, S.J., St. Francis Xavier and his Shrine, (Ranchi:The Catholic Press, 1964), 1

[6] An Act of shaving s monk's or priests head as a preparation for entering a religious order.

[7]Ignatius Loyola was born in 1491, in the Basque province of Guipuzcoa, Spain. He lead a life of chastity and poverty to deny his self. He was an enthusiast with a singular power of attracting other men and persuading them to undertake a course of his spiritual training for the service of God. C.B. Firth, An Introduction to Indian Church History, 56

[8]Xavier had already met Loyola, when he was eleven years old. Philip Caraman, S.J., Ignatius Loyola, (San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1990), 85

[9]Ignatius had seven disciples at that time, namely Laynez, Salmeron, Nicholos, Alonso, Bobadilla, Simon Rodriguez, Francis Xavier and Favre. These disciples were called as the members of the society of Jesus or Jesuits. All these seven wanted to imitate Christ closely and work for Salvation and sanctification of souls. P. Rayanna, S.J., St. Francis Xavier and his Shrine, (Ranchi:The Catholic Press, 1964), 9

[10]P. Rayanna, S.J., St. Francis Xavier and his Shrine, 14

[11]cf. Edith Anne Robertson, Francis Xavier, (London: Student Christian Movement Press, 1930), 83. and P. Rayanna, S.J., St. Francis Xavier and his Shrine, 18

[12]M. Thomas, Christians and Christianity in Indian And Pakistan, 55

[13]Edith Anne Robertson, Francis Xavier, 104.

[14]In the sixteenth century a fairly rapid voyage to India took from five to six months; but because of a late start and unfavorable winds Xavier's voyage took thirteen. This included a delay of six months at Mozambique (on the South-east coast of Africa) while waiting for a monsoon change.  C.B. Firth, An Introduction to Indian Church History, 57

[15]Edith Anne Robertson, Francis Xavier, 115.

[16]P. Rayanna, S.J., St. Francis Xavier and his Shrine, 27

[17]It was easy enough to convert 20,000 Paravas overnight as it were who found in conversion the only means of saving their lives, but to bring them to the Christian way of life was more difficult matter. M. Thomas, Christians and Christianity in Indian And Pakistan, 54

[18]Edith Anne Robertson, Francis Xavier, 126.

[19]P. Rayanna, S.J., St. Francis Xavier and his Shrine, 35-36.

[20]Goswami Dishit, The Rediscovery of St. Francis Xavier, The True Story of His Life and Deeds, (Bombay: His Holiness Shri-1008 Goswami Dikshitji Maharaj, 1964), 17

[21]P. Rayanna, S.J., St. Francis Xavier and his Shrine, 39.

[22]In contrast to Xavier, Ignatius thought that these martyrdoms are God's way of comforting the church for the rebellion of Luther and Melanchthon. P. Rayanna, S.J., St. Francis Xavier and his Shrine, 46.

[23]P. Rayanna, S.J., St. Francis Xavier and his Shrine, 45

[24]Ibid.

[25]Edith Anne Robertson, Francis Xavier, 131.

[26]M. Thomas, Christians and Christianity in Indian And Pakistan, 62

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