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Goa is perhaps the only exception to 'the constant' for conversion. Goans of all castes converted to Christianity. Fr. Francisco himself, however, had little success with converting the Brahmins, who are at the top of the Hindu caste structure - at least, during his lifetime. He was scathing in his comments about the Brahmins. It is true that Fr. Francisco spent far too little time in Goa to develop any relationship with the Brahmins there. They were, indeed, very intelligent, learned and thinking people. They would have to be fully convinced that Christianity was a better way of life for them, before they would even consider conversion. The Portuguese in Goa at the time, including some members of the clergy, certainly were not providing any evidence that it was. To the Brahmins, conversion to Christianity at that time was neither politically, financially nor socially beneficial. Besides, they felt that Fr. Francisco had upset their comfortable position as 'perpetual' leaders of the communities. With the conversion of the lower castes, the foundation was rocked. He describes the Brahmins, as being 'devious'. What led him to make write those words?. Were they covertly undermining him?. And did they receive tacit albeit unintentional assistance from the elite among the Portuguese, the merchants and clergy of other denominations?. What emotional effect did the martyrdom of the 600 Christian Mannars in South India, have on him?. Or is it just that his zeal and expectations were too optimistic for his resources and for the times ?. Whatever the answers to those questions, it appears, that the pitch of Anjiro ( Paolo) was good enough for Fr. Francisco to look for greener pastures in Japan. The timing was excellent too. Fr. Francisco's frustrations with Goa and the Portuguese administrators there may have helped him make the decision to go to Japan. Goa, however, remained his provincial headquarters.
Fr. Francisco set sail from Goa on April 15, 1549. In the party were his chosen associates. After a stop-over at Malacca, they travelled, in a small pirate junk on to Kagoshima - the place from where Paolo ( Anjiro ) hailed. The party received a warm welcome upon arrival in Kagoshima, where they remained for a year. This first glimpse of Japan and the gracious hospitality of his new hosts delighted Fr. Francisco. What struck him enough to write about was ' their sense of honour, their honesty, the monogamous relationships, the remarkable interest in things divine, their willingness to listen and the absence of idolatry'. He did note, with a little alarm, that the Japanese would 'indulge a good deal' in the drinking of Saki. But he was quick to note that 'work with these fine people, would not be easy, for the worst hardships endured by them thus far would pale in comparison with the ones ahead'. Fr. Francisco began to learn Japanese and organised a Japanese version of the basic Christian teachings. They would recite this to anybody who would listen. They made about a hundred converts in Kagoshima, when the authorities started to get suspicious of their activities and prohibited any further preaching activities or conversions to Christianity - under the penalty of death.
Fr. Francisco moved north to Hirado. The daimyo ( ruler ) was accomodating and readily gave the missionaries permission to preach and convert those who wished to be converted. There were several converts during their short stay here, but the experience of Kagoshima had convinced Fr. Francisco that the best method to approach this task of conversion was with the blessings of the Emperor of Japan. So, he set out on foot to the Imperial capital of Kyoto, 500 miles to the north-east. This journey through the bitter cold and snow was perhaps the most testing of all the perilous journeys Fr. Francisco would undertake. To add to the physical toll it took on him, the missionary suffered a major set-back. He was denied an audience with the Emperor. In any event, Fr. Francisco soon learnt that the Emperor was but a puppet. Besides, there was a civil war raging in the region. The heartbroken Jesuit took the long and agonising road back to Hirado. He made a stop at Yamaguchi, and decided to return to India to see how his flock was faring. There was a ship at Okinohama due to sail for Goa. Fr. Francisco boarded this ship.
The ship to Goa made a stop at the Chinese island of Sancian. China was out of bounds for foreigners. Fr. Francisco came across a plan which would allow him access to the Emperor of China . He was aware that the Japanese looked to the Chinese for wisdom and new ideas. This was perhaps his opportunity to get Christianity to Japan - through China. The ship made its stop in Cochin en route to Goa. Fr. Francisco disembarked there and performed some house-keeping chores. There were messages from the various Jesuit houses and the personnel therein. After writing detailed instructions, he left Cochin for China, a mere five days after arrival there. His first task was to meet with Dom Alvaro da Gama ( son of the explorer, Vasco da Gama ) in Malacca. Dom Alvaro was the Portuguese commandant of Malacca. The plan was to designate Diogo Pereira, the captain of a ship, as an ambassador to the Emperor of China. Fr. Francisco would travel into China as a member of his staff. Ambassadors and their staff were the only foreigners allowed to enter China. But Dom Alvaro and Diogo were not on good terms, since their fall-out. Dom Alvaro refused to relent and Fr. Francisco went on without the 'diplomatic cover'. The ship from Malacca touched the desolate island of Sancian. From here, Fr. Francisco hoped to be smuggled into the Chinese mainland. But smuggling was a treacherous occupation and it was difficult to find a boat captain who would undertake the risky journey. Eventually, it seems, one was found. But while the details were being worked out, Fr. Francisco fell ill with a high fever, progressively worsened and died in the early hours of December 3, 1552.
For Fr. Francisco, the first Provincial of the Jesuits in India, it was a sad and lonely death. All the toils, labours, treacherous journeys, his meagre diet, the sleepless nights, hopes, disappointments and personal sacrifices took their final toll on this Basque nobleman, who gave up all the riches of this world so that others would not lose their souls. But the story does not end there.
Padre Francisco de Xavier SJ passed away at the age of 46. He was laid to rest the day after his death. The coffin was packed with lime around the body, perhaps to allow the early decomposition of the body, or perhaps, to prevent it from being attacked by the wild animals in the area. Arrangements were made to transport the remains to Malacca and onward to Goa. In February 1553, the grave site was dug up in order to remove the remains. There was a shock in store!! The body was fresh, as if Fr. Francisco had just passed away. It was transported to Malacca and reburied at the church of Our Lady of the Mount where Fr. Francisco preached and taught. It lay buried there for over five months when it was secretly exhumed and laid in a coffin in the house of Fr. Francisco's friend, Diogo Pereira. It was placed aboard a ship going to Goa on December 11, 1553. The body arrived in Goa three months later, on March 16, 1554.
The whole of Old Goa was at the quay as the ship was coming in. The coffin was taken from the pier, through the Viceroy's Gate to the church at St. Paul's College in a procession. The Viceroy, other state dignitaries and church officials were present at the church, when the coffin was finally opened. They saw with their own eyes and confirmed what they had heard from Malacca. The feelings and thoughts of those present can only be imagined. Thereafter, the towns-folk were allowed to pay their respects and to experience this miracle. Over the next three days, there followed a seemingly endless procession of people. On the night of the third day, the body was placed in a new coffin and enclosed in a tomb near the alter.
Francisco de Xavier was canonized in 1622, along with his mentor Ignacio de Loyola.
Today, the unpreserved but as-yet-undisintegrated body of St. Francisco lies in a wooden coffin inside a silver casket in the Basilica de Bom Jesus in Old Goa. It can be seen in the chapel, as one turns right, at the main altar of the basilica. The casket has a glass window through which, the head is clearly seen. There have been numerous expositions and millions of people of all faiths and countries have seen the body. The body has gradually lost some of its moisture and future expositions have been restricted. Many who visit the Basilica of Bom Jesus and the Se Cathedral across the street are overcome by the deep spirituality of the place.
Writing this account on the life of St. Francisco de Xavier, has been a truly enlightening experience for me. The sacrifice of one's life for the service of God and fellowmen requires a very special person. Even so, the personal sacrifices and risks that St. Francisco undertook were extraordinary. And yet, he could have had a comfortable life - anywhere in Europe or in Goa, for that matter. After all, he had studied at one of the premier Universities in the world, and he came from a family with means.
He must have had several disappointments in the ten years he spent in the East. The task at hand was so immense and there was only one Fr. Francisco. Surely, there were his associates, and some good ones too; but their organizational capabilties were not, perhaps, the same as his. The Portuguese authorities in India, too, could have been more helpful or at least less obstructive. For this tiny Jesuit, the most disappointing aspect of his life, may have been his inabilty to do more in Japan - a country, he had such high hopes for. But that was not to be.
It is no secret, that, today, the Indian states of Goa and Kerala are the bastions of Catholicism in India and that St. Francisco Xavier is one of the most venerated Saints. The Parava converts, and the Goan Catholics who migrated to Mangalore at the time of the Inquisition remain steadfast in their faith. His devout, simple and sacrificial life remains a major source of inspiration to so many families in India and, no doubt, all over the world. St. Francisco would have been pleased to visit India now. Catholicism has spread to all the corners of India - a country where, by and large, members of all faiths live at peace with each other and even celebrate each others religious festivals.
Even so, the entire Indian subcontinent and the Catholic Church have their own individual challenges to face, as a new millenium commences. They both have to make decisions on important social issues. They also face a formidable cross from within - the rise of fundamentalism among all faiths.
The Society of Jesus today is one of the most respected organizations on the subcontinent. It has been responsible for the establishment and running of many of the finest schools and colleges there. True to the spirit of their first Provincial in India, the Jesuits with their excellent organizational capability, quietly and with humility, play a pivotal role in the progress of India's educational system and of India itself. They also have made an indelible mark upon educational systems - all over the world.
November 23, 1996
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