St. Francisco Xavier - his life and times
By Dr. Jose Colaco
Writing this account of the life of St. Francisco Xavier is no easy task. He lived in vastly different times from ours. Born into nobility and affluence, Francisco Xavier, a Basque Spaniard, heeded the call of Ignatius of Loyola ( Ignacio de Loyola ), the founder of the Society of Jesus and submitted himself totally to a life of poverty, chastity and apostolic labours. His journey from Portugal to Goa, over 13 months and the treacherous waters in-between, is perhaps one example of the passion and fervour which symbolised his spirit and devotion to his mission. He would make many equally treacherous journeys, often on foot, to many far-flung territories in the Orient, in his endeavour to convert the populace in those lands to the way of Christ.
He landed in Goa, 32 years after Afonso de Albuquerque and his Hindu allies had defeated and expelled its Muslim ruler, Adil Shah of Bijapur. The tyrannical Muslims were no friends of the Hindus. They were no friends of the Portuguese either - not after the Moor invasion and occupation of Portugal. The Hindus and Muslims were busy persecuting each other in the domain of Kanad or Kanara, which included Goa, at its northern front. While the Muslims were being persecuted and killed by the Hindus in Northern Kanara , they, themselves, were quite intolerant of the Hindus in Goa. The Goan Hindus were forced to submit to Islam or face death.
The main interest , at the time, of the Portuguese in India, was to control the lucrative spice trade, hitherto commandeered by the Muslim Turks and Arabs. The Hindus were, therefore, keen to have the Portuguese, as allies, alias protectors against Muslim attacks. It was a case of symbiosis. And, Christianity became a refuge, albeit convenient one, for many of the lower caste Hindus from the oppression and discrimination practised against them by upper caste Hindus. It also was a protective shield for many Hindus of all castes from the ever-menacing Muslim invaders. Most of the initial converts to Christianity, however, were from the lower castes of Hindus.
The Goa of the 1500s, which refers to the present day insular Old Goa or Velha Cidade de Goa and adjacent area, was actually under Muslim control since 1471. Prior to that, it was an important port settlement of the Kingdom of Vijaynagar. The settlement itself, with its Hindu temples and houses, was razed to the ground by the invading Muslims, and a new township built along with its mosques. It then became an important trading port for and with the countries of the Middle-East. Scores of Arabian dhows would ply across the Arabian Sea laden with cargo as disparate as spices, horses and pilgrims to Mecca. The Muslim presence in Goa continued to be a constant threat to Hindu Vijaynagar until the eventual defeat and of Adil Shah in 1510. Afonso de Albuquerque then demolished the Muslim settlement and built a new one - the relics and ruins of which are still present to this date.
Goa, itself, expanded from the original island of Goa, i.e. Old Goa and adjoining land mass, to the Goa of today - extending far beyond the Mandovi and Zuari rivers; in large part, following the repeated routs of invading armies from the neighbouring territories. Old Goa is, no longer 'that most magnificent of cities'. A series of epidemics and the subsequent desertion have left behind, only a few but nevertheless, extraordinarily beautiful churches and monuments. The present capital, Panjim or Panaji, was but a small, filthy and rustic settlement, inhabited by poor workmen and fisherfolk. There were a few houses belonging to wealthy landowners and of course the Palacio de Idalcao, which is now the Secretariat and House of Assembly but little else to write home about . The surrounding area consisted of mosquito-infested marshes and rice fields in what is now Santa Inez, Campal, Mira-Mar, Taleigao and Caranzalem. References made to ' India' ( e.g. the Viceroy or the Governor of India ) actually point to the territories under Portuguese control on the subcontinent which now include India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. There was no ' India ' in those days. It was just a set of many, disparate and often warring Kingdoms. Those were indeed......different times!
Fr. Francisco Xavier, SJ, upon arrival in Old Goa, met an admixture of peoples, cultures and behaviours. On the one hand was this absolutely splendid and remarkable European-style city with its fine houses, buildings and churches. On the other were the Portuguese gentry with scandalously raunchy lifestyles and poor Goan fisherfolk and workers - now converted to Christianity. There also were the Hindus and Muslims with their customs, beliefs, temples and mosques. Prevelant, too was the politics of the time, including that among the religious orders and the various parishes, and the reality of the Reformation in Europe. The Jesuit zeal appears to have been an integral part of the Catholic Church's counter to the Reformation.
From most available accounts Fr. Francisco Xavier was a small, energetic, humble and self-effacing man who rejected many comforts available to him. He devoted substantial amounts of time caring for the sick, praying, teaching and preaching. Among his hurdles were the various foreign languages he would need to master - in short order. This was a handicap for him and probably meant that he may have had less direct interaction with the Konkani/Tamil/Malayalam/Chinese/Malay and Japanese speaking peoples than he desired. The resultant reliance on interpreters could partly explain his non-realization that Hinduism, despite all the horrors of Sati and the discriminatory Caste and enslaving Bondage system, was still a fulfilling way of life for countless Goans; as was Buddhism and Shintoism, for the majority of Asians from the Orient. The medieval Church, too, as a whole displayed a distinct lack of understanding of , willingness to know about, or tolerance of other faiths, beliefs and cultures.
The horrible Inquisition ( Inquisicao or Inquiry ) in Goa is the source of some criticism against him. The reasons for his call for an Inquisition in Goa are quite clear, in his letters to King Joao III. He was totally frustrated by the state of immorality among many of the elite in Goa and the inabilty or unwillingness of the King of Portugal, to do anything about it. The Inquisition itself was very cruel and turned into a proper witch-hunt. It caused significant sections of the population to migrate - many to the South Indian region of Mangalore. But it came to Goa eight years after the death of Francisco Xavier. It is ludicrous to assign to him any of the responsibility for the crimes and cruelty of the Inquisition in Goa. Portugal, yes; some among the clergy and politicians in Goa at the time, yes; Rome, yes; but Francisco Xavier, no!. He was absent from Goa at the time - by virtue of his death, eight years before the Inquisition came to Goa!!. A death which made him the centre of unparalleled veneration by peoples from all over the world. His unpreserved and as-yet undisintegrated body has assured that.
Today, Francisco Xavier who was canonized in 1622 is known as the patron saint of foreign missions of the Catholic Church. Thousands of churches and universities, worldwide, have been named in his honour and he is one of the most important saints for Catholics especially in the Orient and in Goa, where he is venerated as 'Goemcho Saib' or Lord of Goa . Yet, he was designated to go to the Indies only because of illness which afflicted the first two choices. Many may call it chance; others destiny; but there are countless who believe that, it was the Will of God - especially since the initial goal of this pioneering Jesuit and his compadres was to work in Jerusalem.
Francisco was born on April 7, 1506 at the Castle of Xavier, near Pamplona in the kingdom of Navarre, Spain. He was the youngest child of Don Juan de Jassu y Atondo and Dona Maria Aznarez de Sada. His early childhood was happy and pleasant, at home with his parents, who loved him dearly. He received his primary education at home, from tutors. Francisco was an extremely cheerful, well-mannered, charming, bright and yet modest child who endeared himself to those whom he came into contact with.
In 1513, the kingdom of Navarre found itself in the midst of the expansionist ideas of the two neighbouring monarchies of France and Aragon. As Navarre fell, the king of Navarre and noblemen like Don Juan de Jassu, Francisco’s father, took refuge in France. This was a difficult period for the Xavier household. The annexation of Navarre to Aragon followed. Don Juan passed away soon thereafter, a broken man.
Francisco’s older brothers tried to convince him to join them in the armed profession of many of their ancestors. Francisco, however, chose the path of education. He hoped that, this would help restore the former glory to his family. His brothers Miguel and Juan, meanwhile, struggled for the independence of Navarre and even fought on the opposite side of the Basque nobleman, Inigo - the same Ignacio or Ignatius of Loyola who later founded the Society of Jesus with Francisco as one of its founder members. The Xavier household managed to survive this period of turmoil and uncertainty. But it all came to pass in 1524, when the older Xavier brothers, Miguel and Juan returned home with their titles and estates. It was a joyous re-union, much to the relief of their mother and young Francisco, who had stood by her during these years of trials and tribulations. The restoration of the estates, too, meant that the family was financial better off now.
Young Francisco, who was a cleric at an ecclesiastical school in Pamplona, now decided to proceed to study at the renowned University of Paris. The year was 1525 and Francisco, 18 years old. Away from home, for the first time, this was an unique taste of freedom for young Francisco who had now ‘flown the coop’ !. No more restrictions, no more family watching over him and he was a student with the means to live a good life. As expected, Francisco had his share of student-life, rife with social diversions, follies, aspirations, fears, doubts and opinions. This new-found freedom offered him enormous opportunities to follow the evil ways of his colleagues. The advent of Renaissance and the Reformation, too, opened the doors for the revolt against the establishment and against established norms of appropriate behaviour. From the absolute brink, it appears, Francisco was directed away by Juan Pena, his new Master at the College of Sta. Barbara. This ascetic and virtuous man had a profound effect on Francisco, who by way of contrast had seen Pena's predecessor at Sta. Barbara, a debaucherous man, die of the terrible consequences of venereal disease. This event assisted Francisco to keep away from the ways of his promiscuous companions.
In 1529, he gained the degree of licentiate and the following year, the Masters' degree. It was at Sta. Barbara that Francisco and his room-mate Pierre Favre met Inigo ( Ignacio ) de Loyola, a freshman at the college. At the outset, Francisco did not take too kindly to Ignacio, his new, fellow-Basque but older room-mate. But Pierre was impressed by Ignacio’s good and spiritual way of life. And Ignacio often came to the financial assistance of Francisco, who, as a student, lived much beyond his means. Francisco heard a constant refrain from Ignacio “ What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world but lose his own soul ”. With the benefit of time and experience, Francisco saw-through the apparently friendly ways of his devious companions. He subsequently moved away from any conversations or friendship with them. The three room-mates at Sta. Barbara College in Paris provided the Catholic Church with a Counter to the Reformation that was sweeping through Europe - the eventual formation of the Society of Jesus.
This group of three were soon to be joined by four others - Simon Azavedo, Jaime Laynez, Alphonso Salmeron and Nicolas Bobadilla. They decided that they would go to the Holy Land and devote their lives to the service of God. They took their vows in a chapel at Montmartre on August 15, 1534. After the process of spiritual and corporal exercises, they proceeded to Rome to obtain the blessings of Pope Paul III for their trip to Jerusalem. Three years later in 1537, Francisco received the priesthood along with Inigo.
At about this time, King Joao III of Portugal made a request to the Pope for priests to pastor to the needs of the growing number of subjects in the Portuguese overseas colonies. The King, of course, had heard about Ignacio, Francisco and Favre. The Pope, cognisant of the treacherous nature of the sea-routes to the Portuguese colonies in the East, was hesitant to mandate any priest to proceed on this mission. Fr. Ignacio de Loyola ( Inigo ), finally but with some reluctance, called upon Fr. Francisco to go to India.
From Rome, Fr. Francisco travelled in 1540 to Lisbon in order to catch the boat to India. There, he had an audience with King Joao III. The king was deeply touched by the spirit, humility and genuineness of Fr. Francisco, who spent a year in Lisbon caring for the sick at the 'Todos os Santos' hospice, visiting the poor at home, the incarcerated in prison and learning Portuguese. The King would later write to the Pope to expedite the recognition of the Society of Jesus.
On April 7, 1541, Fr. Francisco and his missionary group set sail from Lisbon in the company of the fleet of five ships. Even though he was reserved choice cabin accomodation on the flagship, Francisco opted to travel on the deck in the company of the sailors and soldiers. The seas were rough and the conditions difficult. After stopovers in Mocambique and Malindi in Kenya, the entourage completed its scheduled six month journey in thirteen perilous months, finally reaching Goa on May 5, 1542.
The entry into Goa, via the River Mandovi, was a magnificent one. So impressed was Fr. Francisco by this island of beautiful churches, monastaries, buildings and 'so many Christians' that he described it as a COISA PARA VER ( a thing to be seen ). He also noted how well Christianity was flourishing among so many non-believers.
Upon arrival, Fr. Francisco walked over to the Hospice and took-up his residence there. He then had an audience with Bishop Juan de Albuquerque, in order to explain his mission to him. Fr. Francisco also presented his credentials as a Papal Nuncio, to the Bishop. But he offered his services entirely at the disposal of the Bishop's command and guidance. The Bishop, recognising Fr. Francisco's sincerity and humility bade, him to go forth and serve according to the dictates of his heart and conscience. Fr. Francisco made Old Goa his headquarters.
From his base at the Hospice in Old Goa, Fr. Francisco commenced his missionary work with astonishing zeal and with amazingly little rest. During the course of a normal day, he would be nursing the sick, comforting the dying and administering the Sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion to them. He would then visit the prisons where he often counselled the inmates to repent for their sins of the past and change their way of life. He would then proceed to the Igreja da Nossa Senhora in order to teach the little children to pray. Similar classes were also held for adults. Fr. Francisco was well known in the city as the priest who called upon the people of the town to prayers - by walking around the streets and ringing the bell. He celebrated Sunday Mass at the Igreja before proceeding to the Home for the Lepers on the outskirts of the city. There he would administer Communion to the lepers after administering the Sacrament of Penance.
Fr. Francisco preached in Portuguese and his words had to be translated into Konkani, the native language of Goa, as Portuguese was not understood by many Goan residents of Old Goa. Fr. Francisco attempted to overcome this language barrier by setting-into-tune most of the common prayers and teaching. He had also brought with him from Europe, a printing press but was unable to set it up. Inspite of their inability to fully comprehend what Fr. Francisco was preaching and teaching, a large number of Goans were overwhelmed by this ' holy man ' and his simple, humble, selfless and saintly ways. These Goans converted to Christianity and swelled the church attendances. The set-tunes, too, had become very popular among the Goans - they were heard singing these 'songs' even as they worked with their fishing nets and in their rice fields. They were also very popular with the little children. This state of affairs, of course, delighted Fr. Francisco, very much.
He had also been approached about the development of the College of the Holy Faith, for the spiritual education of citizens of various nations. It was envisaged that these men, of different races and nations, would return to their homeland and spread the Word to the natives of those lands. Fr. Francisco was an obvious choice as a director. He had already served as a professor in Paris. He, however, was unable to assist in this project, at this time. He was commanded by the Portuguese Governor of Goa, Dom Martim Afonso de Souza, to proceed to the Fishery Coast of South India.
This is a curious turn of events. A mere four months after his arrival in Goa, he was commanded to leave and go elsewhere. There was work he had commenced and there was no replacement yet. Besides, there was more work to be accomplished in Goa. He was barely over the hurdle of Konkani and did not have a clue of Tamil or Malayalam - and yet, this hurried departure from Goa. It is true, that the Portuguese had a vital spice interest to deal with in South India; but the exit of Fr. Francisco may have served another purpose. Were his sermons and admonishments becoming too much of an interference in the 'Portuguese way of life' in Goa ? Was this tiny Jesuit touching a raw nerve among them or was he 'rocking the boat' a bit-too much for their comfort ? Was political pressure applied from within Goa to ensure Fr. Francisco's absence from Goa ?.
Fr. Francisco left Goa for the Fishery Coast at the end of September 1542. In his letters to Rome, he records that he is being sent to Cabo Camurim or present day Kanya Kumari - the southern most tip of India. He was concerned about the perils of the sea voyage and the heat. But he overcame his concerns by accepting these perils and hardships and making them a source of comfort and consolation for him.
The coast around the Cabo was inhabited by the pearl-diver-folk known as the Paravas. They had suffered centuries of discrimination and oppression from the Hindu kings and the Muslim Arab sea lords. Eventually, they turned to the Portuguese for help and in the process and many converted to Christianity. The Paravas were then, attacked by the Arab Muslim fleet, curiously, with help of some Hindu princes. In the ensuing battle of Vedalai, in 1539, the Portuguese eliminated the Muslim presence from the Fishery Coast, for good and the Paravas obtained their long sought after freedom. Mass conversions of the Paravas to Christianity followed in 1539.
Fr. Francisco arrived in the Cabo region in October 1542. Like in Goa, he set about his task in earnest and worked with tireless zeal. He had so much work at his hand that he had little time to eat or sleep. He noted that, while the populace of the area were 'Christians', they knew little of the faith. Fr. Francisco noted however, that the congregation was bright and quick to learn. He was ' sure that, with the proper instructions, they would make fine Christians'. So he taught, preached, prayed, visited the sick and the elderly, baptized the children and buried the dead. All in a form of memorized Tamil !. Fr. Francisco travelled up the coast to Tuticorin repeating his missionary work with the Paravas in the villages all along the way. His life was simple and his requirements few. When he was able to, he slept in little mud huts and had a meal of rice and water. But in the process, he had baptized multitudes of Paravas.
Numerous miracles have been attributed to Fr. Francisco in the South Indian region of Tuticorin. He is recorded as having held off the invading Vadugers, from Vijaynagar in the the north, with the help of his crucifix. The Vadugers had earlier massacred some of the new Parava Christians and taken others captive. A complicating factor in the episode was a secret deal between the Vadugers and the local Portuguese commandant of the region.
Fr. Francisco returned to his base in Goa and and back to the Fishery Coast several times. On the first of these trips to Goa, he received the happy news that the Society of Jesus had the official blessings of Rome and that Fr. Ignacio de Loyola was elected the head of the Society. He would have the opportunity of visiting the tomb of St. Thomas, the apostle, in Myalapur which is in the present day state of Tamil Nadu. His efforts with the Parava fishing community to the east of Cabo Camurin were being watched with interest by the Mukuva fisherfolk who lived on the western side of the Cabo Camurim. Fr. Francisco's efforts in 1544 ensured their conversion to Christianity. By now, he had memorised the necessary phrases and sentences in the Tamil language. Several thousand Mukuvas were baptised and given Portuguese names. It is while he was with the Mukuvas that Fr. Francisco heard about the massacre of several hundred natives of nearby Mannar. The Hindu King of Jaffna, in northern Ceilao, now Sri Lanka upon hearing of the conversion of these Mannars to Christianity, sent his men to their villages and slew them. In another part of Ceilao, the Crown Prince of Kotte was murdered after he was baptised . The fate, befallen these martyrs greatly disturbed Fr. Francisco. He had to find a method of protecting his flock. He wrote to the 'Governador da India' who was, in fact, the Governor of the Portuguese territories in India, for help.
What is quite clear from all accounts is, that Fr. Francisco communicated quite regularly with his fellow Jesuits, the Portuguese Governor of Goa, King Joao III of Portugal and Pope Paul III . Many of these letters were written in Cochin, then an important Portuguese port, now Kochi, in the Indian State of Kerala. This port had a number of Portuguese settlers. The Franciscan missionaries were looking after their pastoral needs. Christianity, actually, had reached Cochin in the first century AD. The followers of St. Thomas the apostle, the Marthoma Catholics ( Syrian Christians ), were pastored by a Bishop named Abuna Jacob. Fr. Francisco did not work among the Syrian Christians. There were Franciscan missionaries in the area.
The Bishop and Fr. Francisco had strong regard and respect for each other. On one of his stops in Cochin Fr. Francisco wrote to Pope Paul III requesting some form of assistance for the ageing Bishop. It so happened, a few years thereafter, that Bishop Jacob could find no successor to him and entrusted the spiritual care of his flock into the hands of the Franciscans. This, of course, did not last very long. There was a clash of the two rites - Eastern and Roman.
On his return to his headquarters in Goa, he was as dismayed as ever at the level to which the Portuguese and the other elite residents of Old Goa, had sunk. They were quite openly promiscuous, kept concubines, neglected the poor and needy and were cruel to the servants and slaves. Their corrupt ways, greed and exploitation of the poor had reached limits, Fr. Francisco could stomach no more. He saw their behaviour and carryings-on as a betrayal of Christ and of Christianity. Accordingly, in 1545, he wrote to King Joao III of Portugal in the strongest of terms. He reminded the King that God had given these far-flung lands to Portugal not to enrich the treasury of Portugal but to extend the 'kingdom of God'. He admonished him for not punishing these evil, power-hungry and corrupt Portuguese officials.
In August of 1545, Fr. Francisco set sail to Malacca in present day Malaysia. He used the same missionary methods he had developed in Goa and perfected in South India. He journeyed from Malacca to the islands of the Pacific rim. It was a series of treacherous sea voyages. The land was not so safe either - not with the head hunters around. But he plodded on with semingly unlimited energy. On one of his journeys in these islands, he is known to have lost his crucifix during a tempest. The distress, which Fr. Francisco experienced, was intense but short-lived, as his crucifix was found the next day - attached to a crab which was coming ashore. For the Jesuit and those with him at the time, it was nothing short of a miracle. He returned to Malacca, where he was introduced to Anjiro, a Japanese man who had sought refuge with the Poruguese and was christened as Paolo. This new convert expressed a strong desire to meet with this Fr. Francisco, a priest all Malacca was talking about. With his moderate knowledge of Portuguese, Paolo impressed him. This was 'a man who wanted to know more about the faith'. A conversation with Paolo led Fr. Francisco to believe that the Japanese might be the most inquiring minds of any of the lands, he had visited thus far. Paolo convinced Fr. Francisco that the Japanese would turn to Christ if they were convinced that Christians practiced what they preached. He made up his mind. He was going to Japan - despite the perilous seas and the piratous Chinese he would meet enroute.
He returned to Goa in 1548. A new Viceroy, Dom Joao de Castro was in office. The Portuguese elite and some members of the clergy in the city, still smarting from the stinging comments about them by Fr. Francisco to their King, began a smear campaign against the Jesuit. The Viceroy was advised that Fr. Francisco was a 'meddler' and 'mischief maker', who was 'partial' to his fellow Spaniards. Upon meeting Fr. Francisco, however, Dom Joao realised that he was an honest and religious man who had a gripe against the immorality and corruption among the government officials in Goa. Thereafter, he frequently sought advice and guidance from Fr. Francisco.
Fr. Francisco formally took over teaching at the College of the Holy Faith in 1548. This college trained secular priests from all over Asia and the eastern seaboard of Africa. These 'natives of distant lands' travelled back to their homelands to carry on the work of the Church. ( The majority of priests in Goa today are secular. They provide for the flock of Goan Catholics in parishes all over Goa. ) Fr. Francisco's next journey would be to Japan.
The evil ways of the Portuguese officials and elite in Old Goa, the perils of the numerous sea journeys to the far flung lands, the complicated politics of the days - some involving the duplicity and cunning of the Portuguese commandants in those lands - the struggles with the poor fisherfolk on either side of the Cabo Camurim, the anxiety over the risks these poor people faced for having converted to the Christian way of life and the horrible massacre of the Mannars by the Hindus must have caused deep anguish to Fr. Francisco.
The Paravas, however, resisted all the pressure they faced from the neighbouring peoples. They have remained faithful to Christianity till this day - a fine testimony to the effort of Fr. Francisco. Conversions from Hinduism on the Indian subcontinent have mainly been from the lower classes and castes. It was also a means for the people of the lower castes to escape the unmitigated, unrelenting subjugation to and humiliation by the upper castes. After all, the structure of the caste system ensured that the down-trodden had no hope of overcoming the caste based discrimination - ever. In the 1950s, millions of lower caste Hindus escaped this 'Karma' or 'fate' by converting to Buddhism.