Front-Line Missionaries for Souls’ Salvation

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When Ignatians arrived First

 The complete list of such achievements of the Society founded by Saint Ignatius would be long indeed. A few of the more exotic ones, worthy of being made into movies, occurred in Persia and Asia.

To the court of the emperor of Persia, Shah Abbas (1557-1628), arrived three daring Discalced Carmelites in 1607 after six adventurous and danger-filled years of travelling through Europe and Asia: Frs Paul-Simon, John-Thaddeus and Vincent St Francis. One of Iran’s greatest rulers, the Shah was intelligent, determined and,to say the least, decisive: for instance, when judging criminal cases, he had the means of execution ready at his side – a tiger, powerful dogs and twelve executioners. The Shah favored the priests, gave them a residence  and in February 1608 the Sacrifice of the Mass was publicly offered in the capital of Iran. Converts included the beautiful niece of the Shah, Sampsonia and a 17th century Lawrence of Arabia, an Englishman named Shirley.

The Kingdom of Siam (modern day Thailand) was another sphere of action for the priests of the Church: in 1685 the King of Siam agreed to establish diplomatic relations with France in return for the favor that King Louis XIV  did him by sending to his country the “Royal Mathematicians”: priests of the Society of Jesus  who fulfilled the Siamese monarch’s ambition for an observatory like the one in Peking (Beijing) founded by their brother priests and religious.

India in 1605 saw the arrival of the great Father De Nobili, who, in order to penetrate the rigid caste system of Indian civilization introduced himself as a ‘rajah’ from Europe: as indeed he was, being a grand-nephew of Pope Julius III, nephew of Cardinal Bellarmine and Cardinal de Nobili and son of the lord of Montepulciano in Tuscany.  By wearing the yellow robe of the ‘ascetics’, living in a typical Indian hermit’s hut, eating no flesh-meat, drinking no wine and living only on vegetables he drew the favorable attention of the rulers of India. Furthermore, like Fr. Ricci in China, he studied the history, peoples and languages of the sub-continent; he could speak Tamil fluently, was a master of Sanskrit, amazed the Brahmins with his knowledge of the Hindu religion to the extent that they would ask him to help them understand their scriptures.  In 1609 seventy of the leading caste converted and so many others followed that by the great priest’s death in 1656 there were some 100,000 Catholics at Madura, Selam and Trichinopoly.

In the history of Vietnam Father  Alexandre de Rhodes (Vietnamese: A-Lịch-Sơn Đắc-Lộ) (1591-1660) has an important place for his role in creating the present Vietnamese writing system (now called Quốc Ngữ  or “national language”). The priest spent ten years in Vietnam from 1620-1630 where he published the first Portuguese-Latin-Vietnamese dictionary and wrote the first Vietnamese Catechism. His dictionary helped the Vietnamese scholars to create their new writing system largely using the Roman alphabet.

Thus the Church has continued through the ages even if there have been instances where some by “dialogue” have merely meant irenicism and relativism and others have erred  in opposing  genuine methods of inculturation.

Blessed José de Anchieta ( 1534-1597) was one of the founders of the two Brazilian cities of São Paulo in 1554 and of  Rio de Janeiro in 1565. He was also a poet and is considered to be Brazil’s first writer. Loved by the Indians whom he defended, they made the priest into a legend even during his lifetime with stories such as his taming of a jaguar who had attacked him. Brazilians have named two cities in his honor: Anchieta in the state of Santa Catarina and Anchieta in the State of Espírito Santo, along with  many schools, hospitals and roads.

The 1700s saw priests exploring India and China. When Kang Hsi and other emperors around the early 1700s wanted to investigate and map out the region beyond the Great Wall, they turned to the priests of the Society of Jesus like Father Ferdinand Verbiest (1623-1688) who mapped out the Russo-Chinese border. The Emperor gave this dedicated priest  – who had taught him math and had also restructured the calendar – permission to fulfill his greatest longing: to travel throughout the empire and propose the Catholic Faith to its peoples.

And all North American Catholics can claim spiritual sonship  to the martyrs Saints Isaac Jogues, Jean de Brébeuf and companions. The Protestant historian, Francis Parkman, wrote of the last hours of  Brébeuf, tortured horrendously by the hands of the Iroquois near Georgian Bay:

“He came of a noble race,- the same, it is said, from which sprang the English Earls of Arundel; but never had the mailed barons of his line confronted a fate so appalling, with so prodigious a constancy. To the last he refused to flinch, and ‘his death was the astonishment of his murderers.’” (FRANCIS PARKMAN, The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century (Boston, 1910), II, 213-14)

It was the heroic end of a heroic fifteen years spent offering the “pearl beyond all price” of the Catholic Faith to the native Americans.

In the United States Capitol in Washington DC among the statues of the most eminent sons and daughters of the different states of the U.S.A. you will find more than one Catholic priest. As Pope Leo XIII wrote in “Longinqua”, a letter of 1895 addressed to American Catholics: “The names newly given to so many of your towns and rivers and mountains and lakes teach and clearly witness how deeply your beginnings were marked with the footprints of the Catholic Church”. The Protestant historian, Bancroft, confirmed the statement by asserting ( with a little hyperbole!) that in the exploration of North America, hardly a city  was founded, hardly a river explored or a cape circumnavigated without a Jesuit leading the way! ( Let us not however forget the Franciscans, the Recollects, diocesans and others!).

An examination of the feats of these priests  shows how much they contributed to the formation of the U.S.A. and belies the old myth of  almost exclusive Anglo-Saxon origins to American culture. For instance, in architecture, from Florida to California, Catholic priests gave a style as characteristically American as the colonial design of New England. Their Misiones were the most effective racial-integration establishments of U.S. history; they were the ones who preserved knowledge of the languages and lifestyles of the Indians through their dictionaries, grammars and carefully conserved native handiworks.

The most famous are Fathers Jacques Marquette and Junipero Serra. Other trailblazers include Father Francisco Garces who in 1776 led the first white people to enter Nevada; the same year in Utah saw the Spanish priests Fathers Dominguez and Escalante follow the river flowing through Spanish Fork Canyon which they named Río de Aguas Calientes (“River of Hot Waters”);  Father Gabriel Druillettes ( 1610-1681) the Apostle of Maine;  Father Louis Hennepin (1626-c.1701) who explored the upper Mississippi in 1680 as far north as the location of present-day Minneapolis, brought  Europe’s attention to the Niagara Falls and to the St. Anthony Falls  and while travelling along a 32-mile long strait in the Great Lakes system on the ship Le Griffon pointed to the north shore of what is now Detroit as a suitable place for a settlement.