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When Francis Xaver Gave no Answer

The Learning Process of the Early Jesuit Missionaries


From: Christ in der Gegenwart, 2006/29, P. 214
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


After the Jesuits had thought of Saint Francis Xavier 2004 on the occasion of his death 450 years ago, this year there are 500 years since his birth. On the occasion of the first anniversary the Mainz church historian Johannes Meier organized with the seminar for middle and new church history a conference in the Catholic Academy Schwerte. The lectures held there could now be published with the second anniversary.

The key-notes captured in the title of the book result both from the mission understanding of the Jesuit Order and from the change that it underwent in the course of the modern times. "Mission" had, as Michael Sievernich described it, first to do with the personal mission and authorization of individual or several Jesuits by the Pope or the General Superior of the Society of Jesus. Only later a territorial understanding followed, in which certain areas were then called mission areas.

One cannot fail to notice that the spirituality of the Order was from its beginnings moulded by - as Sievernich calls it - a "martial", i.e. a military language. Certainly the militia Christi, the "military service" in the discipleship of Christ, is not an invention of the Jesuit Order. The roots of an in such a way expressed spirituality can rather be retraced to earlier centuries. But in view of the often militant appearance of Islamic circles not least for reasons of justice attention is to be given today to this linguistic side. For also the understanding of mission as "conquista espiritual" is founded in this way of thinking and imagining, that was particularly extensively discussed in the memory year of America's discovery 500 years ago.

Even if one rightfully reminds of the fact that in the understanding of the Order "conquista" is understood as "conquest" by peaceful means, a dark shade falls on the history of mission on the one hand by the proximity to political colonization and suppression, and on the other hand by the Christian missionary work particularly in Central and Latin America, and also in Asia and Africa. Too fast the as "conquista espiritual" understood "conquest" became a real "conquista", with whatsever imaginable misdeeds of a martial conquest. In this connection it may be mentioned that Michael Sievernich edited this year anew the still frightening "Report on the Devastation of the West Indian Countries" written by Bartolomé de Casas (Insel paperback 3162).

The "meeting" with foreign religions, which is expected today to happen in the way of "dialogue" and "inculturation", can by no means be rashly transferred to the early period of modern mission activity. This is not correct, just for the reason that for Francis Xavier and the generations which followed him not the joys of discovery were the central content of mission, but the engagement for the 'greater glory of God' and the salvation of the souls. For the time of Francis Xavier Klaus Schatz drew a very realistic picture with regard to his experiences with non-Christian religions. Thereby becomes clear how difficult it was for Francis Xavier to give the testimony of a merciful God. The curious Japanese people confronted him, who saw the chances of the not baptised to be saved rather pessimistically, with an abundance of questions to which he could give no answers. Only in our days one gives slowly way to the conviction that nobody is without his/her own guilt thrown into hell by God, resp. eternally damned - but now with the result that the conversion politics of Christian mission, that had been valid for centuries, is seen pretty often as in principle doubtful. The culture shock, triggered in Europe by the discovery of unknown peoples, can scarcely be overestimated.

Even if it were above all the missionaries who aroused by their rich correspondence the interest in the new discovered countries (see the contributions of C. Nebgen, Peter Downes, G.B. González), the destruction of temples, pictures of gods and other religious articles are also later still quite incriminating (Elizabeth Gössmann). The appreciation of the foreign reality grew only very slowly in course of time.

By the way, mission led the members of the Society of Jesus in most diverse directions of the world. In the extensive volume with its eighteen contributions they are mentioned to a different extent. Due to a papal mission Peter Faber (1506-1546), one of the early companions of Ignatius, the founder of the Order, set out to Germany, where he won Petrus Kanisius (1521-1597), who is venerated today as 'Second Apostle of Germany' (P. Foresta). Asia, the continent to which the view was drawn above all by Francis Xavier's activity, especially the large developments in the mission in India and China, finds - probably due to the scientific interest of the seminar participants - a rather small attention. M.C. Osswald reports of the Indian character of Jesuit art in Goa between 1542 and 1655. J. Lederle describes the development of South Indian Jesuit missions in the conflict area of European power interests. But special attention is given then by the majority of contributions - ten of eighteen - to Latin America, one deals with the beginnings of the US-American Catholicism (J. Schmid).

The numerous case examples are not to be mentioned here in detail. They invite to judge the mission events not in the lump, for only an abundance of factors will make an exact mosaic picture. The entwinements of religion and political-economical interests of the colonial powers, the mission methodology, the development of the cultures of piety, also the handling of patients, and connected with it the attitude of charity and deaconate as well as the changing perception of the foreign reality - all these things (and many others) are facets leading to a picture of the Jesuit mission, that also today can by no means be drawn finally yet.

If one demands today a mutual learning process in the encounter of peoples, religions and cultures, so its roots and beginnings can be found already in the activity of the early Jesuit missionaries.


    Johannes Meier (Editor) "Sendung - Eroberung - Begegnung"
    Franz Xaver, die Gesellschaft Jesu und die katholische Weltkirche im Zeitalter des Barock. Series "Studien zur Außereuropäischen Christentumsgeschichte", volume 8 (Harassowitz Publishing House, Wiesbaden 2005, 446 P., 48.- Euros)


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