Learning to Let Go: Francis Xavier, American Jesuits and Religious Pluralism

By Francis X. Clooney SJ

I have recently had St. Francis Xavier on my mind.

December 3rd marked the 450th anniversary of his death. I am a Jesuit and also a Francis Xavier.

Since the 1970s I have been studying South Indian Hinduism, the non-Western religious tradition Xavier first encountered in the early 1540s.

At the request of the provincials, I coordinate interreligious dialogue for Jesuits and Jesuit ministries in the United States. As I see it, if the charism of Ignatius, understood anew in each era, aids us in renewing our basic Jesuit identity, so too Xavier’s charism remains vital as we explore anew the requirements of our changing Jesuit mission today in the context of today’s growing American pluralism.

I have therefore been thinking a lot about how we might learn from Xavier. I wrote about him recently (Studies in Jesuit Spirituality, March 2002). Here I offer an insight into a decision he made, late in life, to clothe himself and his mission in new dress. In the winter of 1550, Xavier recognized that he had failed to achieve much by his long-awaited visit to the court of Japan’s emperor in Kyoto. He had not been well received, had no access to the emperor and in any case discovered that the emperor lacked the authority to give him permission to move about and preach as he desired.

He decided to return to Yamaguchi, where he had previously failed to achieve much, in order to meet the prince there a second time. To make a better impression, he decided to dress in a finer style, putting aside his tattered cassock and beggar’s garb and instead dressing in finer garments. He had previously been strongly attached to the idea of preaching in poverty, poor as Christ was poor. Xavier never tells us why he changed his mind in this matter, but we get some insight from Alessandro Valignano, the Society’s Visitor for Asia in the latter part of the 16th century.

He described Xavier’s decision as follows: “From experience [Xavier] realized that, by going about miserably clad and scornful of self, he not only did not further his plans for God’s honor but positively hindered them. The Japanese, true to their penchant for ceremonial and public marks of esteem, had no conception of the meaning of humility and mortification (as hitherto practiced by Xavier). For that reason he decided from now on to dress and behave in another manner, thus showing a genuine contempt of self, seeking in all he did God’s honor alone, for whose sake he embraced, indifferently, either prestige or contempt.” (J. F. Schutte SJ, “Valignano’s Mission Principles for Japan,” Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1985, vol. 2, p. 320)

Even his fond image of the life of the Jesuit and the missionary had to be let go if he were really to do the work to which he was called.

In a January 29, 1552 letter (“The Letters and Instructions of Francis Xavier,” IJS 1992, pp. 326-343) describing his return to Yamaguchi, Xavier mentions the good results of his new self-presentation. He gained permission to live in Yamaguchi, preach freely, engage in argument and persuasion, and convert many of those who listened. He tells us that many of the Japanese were curious, responding well to his intelligent if pointed presentations of Christian philosophical tenets and articles of faith. They listened with interest when he explained to them salvation and the meaning of heaven and hell, and many converted. When Buddhist monks disagreed with his views, Xavier argued with them, explaining and defending Christian positions, and aiming to discredit views he found incompatible with the Gospel he preached.

While many remained skeptical — good ideas came from China, they said, not further west — Xavier seemed to make a real impact in Yamaguchi. His gamble paid off: put aside the trappings of holy poverty and human weakness, dress up in a way that makes sense to your new neighbors, and opportunities to talk, preach, and argue will more easily be found.

At Yamaguchi, we can say, Xavier invented the Jesuit tradition of interreligious adaptation. By the early 17th century the model was already familiar. Around 1613 and in defense of his own experiments in adaptation to south Indian customs, Roberto de Nobili wrote, “Neither did our holy Father Francis Xavier hesitate to copy the same usage when he saw that the glory of God demanded it. Thus, in Japan he removed his customary humble dress and assumed robes of silk and various ornaments.”

De Nobili goes on to observe that even before his time Xavier’s adaptability had already inspired the Jesuits in China: “Indeed, the religious of our Order who followed in his footsteps on the China Mission and are engaged in the task of winning over souls for Christ our Lord always appear in public dressed in silken garments, wearing a long beard, their fingernails and hair well trimmed, and holding a fan of honor in their hand.”

To be a Jesuit missionary was to be like Xavier: to preach, to be entirely devoted to Christ, to understand cultural and religious symbols (one’s own and those of others), to distinguish faith from its contexts and, in the end, to be free and inventive enough to let go of the old and embrace the new.

Four hundred and fifty years later, the situation hasn’t changed. We are the heirs of Xavier as well as of Ignatius; we share his mission of witnessing to Christ in a changing, often unfamiliar world; we can still learn from how Xavier entered Yamaguchi a second time, giving up cherished and comfortable habits in order to make clear what really counted.

We too need to reflect honestly on whether our present conception of preaching the Gospel serves us well as we plan ministries in a pluralistic society where much is quickly, continually outmoded. Xavier challenges us also to detach ourselves from our fondest conceptions of how Jesuit companionship with Jesus works. To paraphrase Valignano, “we are dared to show a genuine contempt of self, seeking in all we do God’s honor alone, for whose sake we embrace, indifferently, either prestige or contempt, old or new ways of being Jesuit.”

At issue for us, of course, is not primarily clothing, even if that is still a complicated matter today, and even if we may underestimate the importance of dressing efficiently for the task at hand. More important is our comfortable intellectual and spiritual garb, the words and ideas in which we dress our faith.

Our experience of Christ and sense of Christ’s universal significance may be obscured by concepts and words which look back instead of forward, notions which console us because they make sense to us — while at the same time failing to communicate to people from other religions and cultures, or even to Catholics who have been finding in themselves complicated new ways of being religious.

Like Xavier, we may imagine ourselves to be thinking and speaking very clearly, while to others we may simply appear odd, speaking of our faith and enacting our love in quirky, quaint ways. We may not endeavor to argue as did Xavier, but we still need to make enough sense of our faith that people can agree or disagree with us, and care about the differences; for this, we need to be ready to let go of comfortable Jesuit-talk and even Catholic-talk, in order to be at home among our newest religious neighbors.

We need to figure out our own mission, but still we can ask: Were Francis Xavier to visit us 450 years after his death, what would he want us to keep or let go of?

(Clooney [NEN] is professor of theology at Boston College, and at the time this article was written served as the Coordinator of Interreligious Dialogue for the Jesuits of the United States.

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