And now, how about a letter?
These days, the temptation to spend time online arguing is very great, isn’t it? Or – if you don’t do a lot of the arguing yourself, to at least gape at the train wreck of strawmen and ad hominem coursing down your screen.
I find it (spiritually) helpful to tear myself away from all of that and immerse myself in history – you have your own alternative of choice, but history (and Merlot) has always been mine. My undergraduate major was history, my MA is in Church History, and history has always been my gateway to understanding of the human condition and my own place within it. And for a Catholic, the historical perspective is really obligatory. It’s not about simply learning useful lessons, picking up fun anecdotes or, on the other hand refusing to reform or change Because History.
No, we study history because the Catholic Way involves a mysterious, organic collecting and sifting of human response to God’s call through time and around the world, a process that then becomes embodied in the teaching, practice and devotion of the Church. It’s hard to explain, but here’s what is easier to understand: purely top-down change anchored in a present moment or personality is not that Catholic way. Some don’t understand this because Catholic = Hierarchy to them and that must mean a process of understanding and living that flows from the top down, but it’s actually the opposite. The dynamic of the Church’s life flows upward, as practices and devotions evolve and doctrine is clarified in response to human experience and questions – this begins, not in chanceries, but in homes, villages and city streets, mission fields, universities and parishes, cathedrals and grottos in the middle of impoverished 19th century France as human beings interact with the Gospel as it’s presented to them. Ideally (ideally), the function of the top – as in theologians, pastors, bishops and pope – is to confirm, clarify, set boundaries and sift – not push, create or impose a “vision.”
Sometimes the boundary-setting is harsher and more direct, sometimes it’s too timid. All the time, human frailty, bias, blindness and pride limit and shape all of it, from top to bottom, from bottom to top, which actually makes it even more clear why authentic humility in the context of the Holy Spirit’s gentle, generous ways among history is essential.
What I read about was a man who made tremendous sacrifices to travel across the world, endure great hardship….to teach fisherman and little kids the Creed.
Why did he do this? Why did he think it was worth his life?
It seems, according to much of the current conversation in the air, that he was mistaken in his approach.
Yes, the question of this encounter between Christian creed and various cultures is not uncomplicated. The question has rightly occupied Asian, African and European theologians for decades, and for literary shorthand versions, consider Black Robe and Silence. Missionaries were not infallible. They made mistakes, they allowed themselves to become compromised, they were short-sighted. All of that is true.
Even so – and not dismissing those questions – the 21st century observer who is anxious to diminish the importance of the particulars of belief in favor of a purportedly more pastoral engagement – who seems to believe that Jesus is more authentically and powerfully offered and encountered without much concern for the doctrine, and indeed that the specific articulation of belief functions more often than not as an obstacle to encountering Christ (for this is the essence, really of much of the direction of the current conversation ) – has a responsibility, as a Catholic, to engage this question in the context of the whole of Catholic tradition, which includes a lot of people making tremendous sacrifices, not only to live out the corporeal works of mercy, but the spiritual works as well.
Was Francis Xavier doing it wrong? What was the point – having the memorization of credal formulations and prayers, and baptism as the central focus of his missionary work? That model of “making them Christians” in this way…was it wrong?
Well, to explore the question requires us to go beyond simplistic categories, and to ask interesting, serious questions about the deeper spiritual dynamic that is engaged by this process of – dare we say it – making disciples – the thinking behind it, and the cultural context.
It would require us to look to the past and..wait for it…engage in..dialogue, to listen and be willing to learn. It might even require…humility.
I and Francis Mancias are now living amongst the Christians of Comorin. They are very numerous, and increase largely every day. When I first came I asked them, if they knew anything about our Lord Jesus Christ? but when I came to the points of faith in detail and asked them what they thought of them, and what more they believed now than when they were Infidels, they only replied that they were Christians, but that as they are ignorant of Portuguese, they know nothing of the precepts and mysteries of our holy religion. We could not understand one another, as I spoke Castilian and they Malabar ; so I picked out the most intelligent and well read of them, and then sought out with the greatest diligence men who knew both languages.. We held meetings for several days, and by our joint efforts and with infinite difficulty we translated the Catechism into the Malabar tongue. This I learnt by heart, and then I began to go through all the villages of the coast, calling around me by the sound of a bell as many as I could, children and men. I assembled them twice a day and taught them the Christian doctrine : and thus, in the space of a month, the children had it well by heart. And all the time I kept telling them to go on teaching in their turn whatever they had learnt to their parents, family, and neighbours.
Every Sunday I collected them all, men and women, boys and girls, in the church. They came, with great readiness and with a great desire for instruction. Then, in the hearing of all, I began by calling on the name of the most holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and I recited aloud the Lord’s Prayer, the Hai/ Mary, and the Creed in the language of the country: they all followed me in the same words, and delighted in it wonderfully. Then I repeated the Creed by my- self, dwelling upon each article singly. Then I asked them as to each article, whether they believed it unhesitatingly ; and all, with a loud voice and their hands crossed over their breasts, professed aloud that they truly believed it. I take care to make them repeat the Creed oftener than the other prayers ; and I tell them that those who beUeve all that is contained therein are called Christians. After explaining the Creed I go on to the Commandments, teaching them that the Christian law is contained in those ten precepts, and that every one who observes them all faithfully is a good and true Christian and is certain of eternal salvation, and that, on the other hand, whoever neglects a single ore of them is a bad Christian, and will be cast into hell unless he is truly penitent for his sin. Converts and heathen alike are astonished at all this, which shows them the holiness of the Christian law, its perfect consistency with itself, and its agreement with reason. After this I recite our principal prayers, as the Our Father and the Hail Mary, and they say them after me. Then we go back to the Creed, adding the Our Father and the Hail Mary after each article, with a short hymn; for, as soon as I have recited the first article, I sing in their language, ^ Jesus, Son of the living God, grant us the grace to believe firmly this first article of your faith : and that we may obtain this from you, we offer you this prayer taught us by yourself^ Then we add this second invocation : ‘ Holy Mary^ Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ, obtain for us from your most sweet Son that we may believe without hesitation this article of the Christian faitlu We do the same after all the other eleven articles.
We teach them the Commandments in the following way. After we have sung the first, which enjoins the love of God, we pray thus : ^ Jesus Christ, Sou of the living God, grant us the grace to love Thee above all things ; and then we say for this intention the Lord’s Prayer. Then we all sing together, ‘ Holy Mary, Mother of Jesus Christ, obtain for us from your Son the grace to observe perfectly the first of His Commandments ; and then we say the Hail Mary. So we go on through the other nine, changing the words of our little invocation as occasion requires. Thus I accustom them to ask for these graces with the ordinary prayers of the Church, and I tell them at the same time that if they obtain them, they will have all otherthings that they can wish for more abundantly than they would be able to ask for them. I make them all, and particularly those who are to be baptized, repeat the form of general confession. These last I question after each article of the Creed as it is recited, whether they believe it firmly ; and after they have answered yes, I give them an instruction in their own language explaining the chief heads of the Christian religion, and the duties necessary to salvation. Last of all, I admit them thus prepared to baptism. The instruction is ended by the Salve Regina, begging the aid and help of our Blessed Lady.
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. They show an ardent love for the Divine law, and an extraordinary zeal for learning our holy religion and imparting it to others. Their hatred for idolatry is marvellous. They get into feuds with the heathen about it, and whenever their own parents practise it, they reproach them and come off to tell me at once. Whenever I hear of any act of idolatrous worship, I go to the place with a large band of these children, who very soon load the devil with a greater amount of insult and abuse than he has lately received of honour and worship from their parents, relations, and acquaintances. The children run at the idols, upset them, dash them down, break them to pieces, spit on them, trample on them, kick them about, and in short heap on them every possible outrage.
I had been living for nearly four months in a Christian village, occupied in translating the Catechism. A great number of natives came from all parts to entreat me to take the trouble to go to their houses and call on God by the bedsides of their sick relatives. Such numbers also of sick made their own way to us, that I had enough to do to read a Gospel over each of them. At the same time we kept on with our daily work, instructing the children, baptizing converts, translating the Cate chism, answering difficulties, and burying the dead. For my part I desired to satisfy all, both the sick who came to me themselves, and those who came to beg on the part of others, lest if I did not, their confidence in, and zeal for, our holy religion should relax, and I thought it wrong not to do what I could in answer to their prayers. But the thing grew to such a pitch that it was impossible for me myself to satisfy all, and at the same time to avoid their quarrelling among themselves, every one striving to be the first to get me to his own house ; so I hit on a way of serving all at once. As I could not go myself, I sent round children whom I could trust in my place. Tliuey went to the sick persons, assembled their families and neighbours, recited the Creed with them, and encouraged the sufferers to conceive a certain and wellfounded confidence of their restoration. Then after all this, they recited the prayers of the Church. To make my tale short, God was moved by the faith and piety of these children and of the others, and restored to a great number of sick persons health both of body and soul. How good He was to them ! He made the very disease of their bodies the occasion of calling them to salvation, and drew them to the Christian faith almost by force !
I have also charged these children to teach the rudiments of Christian doctrine to the ignorant in private houses, in the streets, and the crossways. As soon as I see that this has been well started in one village, I go on to another and give the same instructions and the same commission to the children, and go I go through in order the whole number of their villages. When I have done this and am going away, I leave in each place a copy of the Christian doctrine, and tell ail those who know how to write to copy it out, and all the others are to learn it by heart and to recite it from memory every day. Every feast day I bid them meet in one place and sing all together the elements of the faith. For this purpose I have appointed in each of the thirty Christian villages men of intelligence and character who are to preside over these meetings, and the Governor, Don Martin Alfonso, who is so full of love for our Society and of zeal for religion, has been good enough at our request to allot a yearly revenue of 4000 gold fanams for the salary of these catechists. He has an immense friendship for ours, and desires with all his heart that some of them should be sent hither, for which he is always asking in his letters to the King.
There is now in these parts a very large number of persons who have only one reason for not becoming Christian, and that is that there is no one to make them Christians. It often comes into my mind to go round all the Universities of Europe, and especially that of Paris, crying out every where like a’ madman, and saying to all the learned men there whose learn- ing is so much greater than their charity, ‘ Ah ! what a miiltiude of souls is through your fault shut out of heaven and falling into hell . Would to God that these men who labour so much in gaining knowledge would give as much thought to the ac- count they must one day give to God of the use they have made of their learning and of the talents entrusted to them ! I am sure that many of them would be moved by such considerations, would exercise themselves in fitting meditations on Divine truths, so as to hear what God might say to them,^-* and then, renouncing their ambitions and desires, and all the things of the world, they would form themselves wholly according to God’s desire and choice for them. They would exclaim from the bottom of their hearts : ^ Lord^ here am I ; send jue whithersoever it shall please Thee, even to India /’^-^ Good God ! how much happier and how much safer they would be ! With what far greater confidence in God’s mercy would they meet their last hour, the supreme trial of that terrible judgment which no man can escape ! They would then be able joyfully to use the words of the faithful servant in the Gospel : ‘ Lord, Thou gavesf me five talents; behold, I have gained beside them other five. They labour night and day in acquiring knowledge, and they are very diligent indeed in understanding the subjects which they study ; but if they would spend as much time in that which is the fruit of all solid learning, and be as diligent in teaching to the ignorant the things necessary to salvation, they would be far better prepared to give an account of themselves to our Lord when He shall say to them : ‘ Give an account of thy steiuard- ship.’^”^ I fear much that these men, who spend so many years in the Universities in studying the liberal arts, look more to the empty honours and dignities of the prelature than to the holy functions and obligations of which those honours are the trappings. It has come to this pass, as I see, that the men who are the most diligent in the higher branches of study, commonly make profession that they hope to gain some high post in the Church by their reputation for learning, therein to be able to serve our Lord and His Church. But all the time they deceive themselves miserably, for their studies are far more directed to their own advantage than to the common good. They are afraid that God may not second their ambition, and this is the reason why they will not leave the whole matter to His holy will. I declare to God that I had almost made up my mind, since I could not return to Europe myself, to write to the University of Paris, and especially to our worthy Professors Cornet and Picard, and to show them how many thousands of infidels might be made Christians without trouble, if we had only men here who would seek, not their own advantage, but the things of Jesus Christ. And therefore, dearest brothers, ‘ pray ye the Lord of the harvest that He send forth labourers into His harvest.’