It is apt that people are starting to talk about Silence around the time of the feast of St. Francis Xavier, who introduced Christianity to Japan in 1549. Here is a good, short summary of the two years he spent there.
You can read in more detail about his time in Japan here, in the old biography and letter collection I cited in the last post. The chapter to which this link will take you contains the biographer’s summary as well as a letter from Francis Xavier to the Society back in Goa…which is well worth your time.
As I noted in the previous entry, Francis Xavier’s mission method encompassed all of the works of mercy – which is the traditional Catholic way of evangelization. These days, the “instruct the ignorant” part of the works of mercy is often ignored, downplayed or disparaged, for various reasons: The specifics of religious truth are too complicated, are an obstacle to the Big Picture Truth that Jesus Loves You, or maybe even actually aren’t that true at all – not in the sense of being false but in the sense of not mattering very much, all things considered.
But Francis Xavier, S.J., put “instruct the ignorant” front and center when it was called for – as in when those he was seeking to bring to Christ lived out of false belief systems. For him, understanding their beliefs and then relentlessly tearing them down was an essential work of mercy. Yes, he accompanied them….pointing out their errors and inviting them to the fullness of the truth with every step he took alongside them.
First, Xavier’s detailed explanation of the mission field that he found: his take on Japanese society and culture, and in particular religious practice. What he found was a system of sects, whose members were called bonze. The beliefs of these sects were rooted in Chinese beliefs and had evolved into an elaborated eternal life insurance profit-making scheme.
(Forgive the formatting – I cut and pasted from the text at the archive.org site and don’t have time to reformat. Basketball game.)
At the same time, the bonzes and the bonzesses, when preaching to the people about these laws, persuade them that profane per sons, occupied with worldly business, are unable themselves to- observe these five precepts ; but that they themselves are ready to make satisfaction for all the evil or inconvenience which may happen to them in consequence of breaking them, on con dition of the people giving them convents, yearly revenues, and money for all necessary uses : in short, of paying them every kind of honour and homage.
Xavier found the Japanese to be highly intellectual and interested in engaging in theological conversation – so that is what he did.
We used to preach twice a
day, and after the sermon there was always a good long dis
pute concerning religion. Thus we were continually occupied
either in preaching or in answering questions. Many bonzes
were often present at the sermons, and a great number of
others, both of the common people and of the nobility. The
house was always full of men, so full, that at times some were
shut out for want of space. Those who asked us questions
pressed them so well home, that the answers we gave enabled
them thoroughly to understand the falsehood of their own laws
and founders, and the truth of the Christian law. After dis
putes and questionings for many days, they at last began to
give in and betake themselves to the faith of Christ.
And when you read his account of the discourses, what you discover is…not much has changed. Human beings still fall into the same errors we always have, and we also have the very same questions about faith.
Xavier’s angle with the bonze – the weakness in their system he discerned – was that they had no Creation account or philosophy.
The Japanese doctrines teach absolutely nothing concerning the creation of the world, of the sun, the moon, the stars, the heavens, the earth, sea, and the rest, and do not believe that they have any origin but themselves. The people were greatly astonished on hearing it said that there is one sole Author and common Father of souls, by whom they were created. This astonishment was caused by the fact that in their religious tra ditions there is nowhere any mention of a Creator of the uni- verse. If there existed one single First Cause of all things, surely, they said, the Chinese, from whom they derive their religion, must have known it. For the Japanese give the Chinese the pre-eminence in wisdom and prudence in everything relat ing either to religion or to political government. They asked us a multitude of questions concerning this First Cause of all things ; whether He were good or bad, whether the same First Cause were the origin of good and of evil. We replied that there exists one only First Cause, and He supremely good, with out any admixture of evil.
And he answered their very natural questions about God’s timing: If this is so great and so true…why is this the first we’re hearing of it?
Before their baptism the converts of Amanguchi were greatly troubled and pained by a hateful and annoying scruple that God did not appear to them merciful and good, because He had never made Himself known to the Japanese before our arrival, especially if it were true that those who had not worshipped God as we preached were doomed to suffer everlasting punish ment in hell. It seemed to them that He had forgotten and as it were neglected the salvation of all their ancestors in permit ting them to be deprived of the knowledge of saving truths, and thus to rush headlong on eternal death. It was this painful thought which, more than anything else, kept them back from the religion of the true God. But by the divine mercy all their error and scruple was taken away. We began by proving to them that the divine law is the most ancient of all. Before re ceiving their institutions from the Chinese, the Japanese knew by the teaching of nature that it was wicked to kill, to steal, to swear falsely, and to commit the other sins enumerated in the ten commandments, a proof of this being the remorse of con science to which any one guilty of one of these crimes was cer tain to be a prey. We showed them that reason itself teaches us to avoid evil and to do good, and that this is so deeply im planted in the hearts of men, that all have the knowledge of the divine law from nature and from God the Author of nature before they receive any external instruction on the subject. If any doubts were entertained on the matter, an experiment might be made in the person of a man without any instruction, living in absolute solitude, and in entire ignorance of the laws of his country. Such a man, ignorant of and a stranger to all human teaching, if he were asked whether it were or were not criminal to kill, to steal, or to commit the other actions forbidden by the law of God, and whether it were right to abstain from such actions, then, I say, this man, so fundamentally without all hu man education, would most certainly reply in such a manner as to show that he was by no means without knowledge of the divine law. Whence then must he be supposed to have re ceived this knowledge, but from God Himself, the Author of nature? And if this knowledge is seen among barbarians, what must be the case with civilized and polished nations ? This being so, it necessarily follow that before any laws were made by men the divine law existed innate in the hearts of all men. The converts were so satisfied with this reasoning, as to see no further difficulty; so that this net having been broken, they received from us with a glad heart the sweet yoke of our Lord.
The bonzes are persons of acute mind, and are very fond of studying, especially what relates to the future ; they are fond of considering what will happen to them, what will be their end, and all questions of this nature. There were some of the bonzes who, in the course of their meditations, had come to believe that there was no way of saving souls in their system. They argued in this way : It is necessary above all things that there should exist a single origin of all things ; now, in their books there is not a word on the subject, for there is a won derful silence in them all as to the creation of the universe; and therefore if any of their predecessors were acquainted with this first principle a thing not confirmed by any authority, written or traditional they must have kept the knowledge to themselves and hid it from their descendants. Now, men of this sort were wonderfully delighted with the divine law. One of them embraced the faith of Jesus Christ at Amanguchi, after being many years in the university of Ban- dou, where he had a flourishing reputation for learning. Before we came to Japan he had thought of becoming a bonze; after wards he changed his mind and married. The reason he as signed for this change was, that he had seen the falsehood and emptiness of the Japanese religions, and therefore did not be lieve in them at all, but he was bound to pay his homage to the Author and Creator of the universe. Our Christians were overjoyed at his accession, for he was and was thought to be the most learned man of the city.