Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Feast of St. Francis Xavier: On the Missions

This year is the 500th anniversary of the birth of St. Francis Xavier, whose feast is tomorrow (Sunday, Dec. 3) and whose zeal for souls is legendary. I’m sure the celebrations in Goa, where most his body remains (somewhat) incorrupt (his arm is encased in a jeweled reliquary in the Gesù, the Jesuit mother church in Rome. And a pious devotee bit off one of his toes at one point, I think.), will be quite festive. I don’t know whether the body will be carried out in procession, like it is every ten years (the next such display is scheduled for 2014, I believe).

The Office of Readings for the memorial has an excerpt from the letters of St. Francis to St. Ignatius. His earnest zealousness is clear in this passage:
Many, many people hereabouts are not becoming Christians for one reason only: there is nobody to make them Christians. Again and again I have thought of going around the universities of Europe, especially Parish, and everywhere crying like a madman, riveting the attention of those with more learning than charity: “What a tragedy: how many souls are being shut out of heaven and falling into hell thanks to you!”

I wish they would work as hard at this as they do at their books, and so settle their account with God for their learning and the talents entrusted to them.

This thought would certainly stir most of them to meditate on spiritual realities, to listen actively to what God is saying to them. They would forget their own desires, their human affairs, and give themselves over entirely to God’s will and his choice. They would cry out with all their heart: “Lord, I am here! What do you want me to do?” Send me anywhere you like – even to India!
It’s a sentiment that, at least to us post-Conciliar Catholics (who’ve never heard a “Save the Pagan Babies” pitch), is a little embarrassingly zealous, a bit too much like those Southern Baptist or evangelical zealots whose rhetoric makes us cringe. The truths of Nostra Aetate have combined with the relativism of our era to elevate indifferntism, under the guise of tolerance as one of the hightest goods, and has dulled any sense of missionary zeal to the point of non-existence. This is not to say that the change in attitude has been entirely wrong-minded. I don’t really believe, for instance, that my entire family is destined for eternal damnation, for instance, and if that belief were required of me, I doubt that I’d have really become Catholic.

It’s interesting to note what one young peritus at the thought about the whole issue of missions, soon after the Council ended, in his insightful and quite readable notes, published as the “Theological Insights of Vatican II” by Paulist Press in 1966. This excerpt is taken from his discussion on the “Schema on the Missions” (which became the Conciliar Decree Ad Gentes.)
The crucial issue, which gravely affected the whole context in the question, especially for the missionary bishops, was the crisis in which the very idea of missions found itself. The cause of this crisis lay in profound changes in modern thinking about the necessity of missions. The motive which had driven missionaries in the past to bring other people to Christ had increasingly lost its urgency. What drove the great missionaries in the beginning of the modern era to go out into the world, and what filled them with holy unrest, was the conviction that salvation is in Christ alone. The untold millions of people who suddenly emerged from unknown worlds beyond the horizon would thus be hopelessly doomed to eternal ruin without the message of the Gospel. Therefore, the sacred obligation of the faithful to preach the Gospel everywhere seemed the most compelling responsibility of brotherly love, since love not only concerned particular earthly needs, but the destiny of all men. What was involved was either eternal salvation or eternal damnation.

Meantime, in recent generations, the idea had more and more come to prevail that God can save and wants to save all men even though outside the Church, although ultimately not without the Church. This idea was hitherto only applied by way of concession and exception. Moreover, in recent times a more optimistic interpretation of the meaning of the world religions has been propounded. … This idea is, if anything, alien to the biblical-thought world or even antipathetic to its spirit. The prevailing optimism, which understands the world religions as in some way salvific agencies, is simply irreconcilable with the biblical assessment of these religions.

It has become clear that the implantation of Christianity in Asia has so far failed. Conversion to Christianity has so far, for all practical purposes, meant conversion to Europeanism. Thus it has been limited to marginal areas of the Asiatic mind. A Christian faith which wants to be and really should be the universal religion of mankind has been unable to genuinely move beyond an Occidental culture. To this hour there has arisen no really indigenous Asiatic Christianity reflecting a genuine grasp of the spirit and culture of the Orient.
There then follows a comparison with the rise of Marxism as a “universal religion” and how its “missionary activity” has been remarkably successful (remember, this was the 1960s, and Marxism was still seen as the wave of the future), transcending cultural barriers of all kinds.
If it is a fact that human history moves relentlessly toward unification of mankind, then this unifications must not be a mere economic unification through technological achievement. It must become a unification in view of human values, a unification of the spirit and of what is highest in the human spirit, its relationship to God. A unification which is not a unification in spirit would lead mankind to ultimate self destruction through a conflict between external cooperation and inner antagonism. In evaluating the need for the spiritual dimension of the historical process, the atheistic sector, which calls itself materialistic, thinks on a much higher level than some Christians do. If such insights, which see Christianity not within a narrowly individual perspective but rather on the level of historical interaction among men – if these insights are pursued to their logical conclusion, then we might be astonished to see how necessary missions are even today for the salvation of mankind.
(The young peritus is none other than Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.)

Having a missionary zeal can, and is, easily misunderstood. It’s not about pride, or being obnoxious, or a numbers game, or about getting on the right bus to the after-life, just about ensuring our “ticket to heaven.” If Christianity is true, then its truths, and its particular perspective on life and reality has a universal significance, valid for all people. We are duty bound, by the Great Commission, to share the Good News, in our own way. And yes, this does mean entering into respectful dialogue with the religions of the world, or rather, with people of other faiths. That is, however one puts it, an attitude that is seen as spiritually violent in India. “Conversion” is a politically incendiary question, and being “for conversions” is seen as uncouth bigotry of the worst kind. The question is thorny, and I’m not really giving it justice here. I guess the main point is, as Christians, we should always keep the Lord’s missionary mandate in mind, and be beacons of the Good News in all circumstances, and not hide our light under a bushel basket.

Yesterday, near the hospital, I was at a “Xerox stand” getting various papers from my dad’s file photocopied. I noticed that there was a picture of the Sacred Heart and the Immaculate Heart of Mary on the wall, and a picture of Jesus next to it, with “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life,” (in Marathi) underneath it, a holy card of Blessed Theresa, and a flier promoting (of all things) a Benny Hinn crusade!

St. Francis Xavier, give us a zeal for souls.

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