Today’s Advent Reading:
USCCB – December 3rd
The LORD builds up Jerusalem;
he gathers the exiles of Israel.
He heals the brokenhearted
and binds up their wounds.
He determines the number of the stars
and calls them each by name.
– Psalm 147 2-4
Martin Scorsese is drawing an unprecedented amount of attention to early Jesuit missionaries to Japan this week, and I would like to participate in this trend by telling one simple story about today’s celebrated saint and foiled Jesuit missionary to Japan, Saint Francis Xavier. Now, there are a million (probably fantastic) stories about Francis, from his Christ-like ability to raise the dead to his other-Saint-Francis-like affinity for animals. However, the most fitting story for the spirit of today is the tale of his mission to the pearl divers.
Although Francis is most famous for the foiled efforts to convert Japan, long before he ever headed to out that way he had a special mission on the Pearl Fishery Coast in southern India. After hearing terrible rumors that Portuguese missionaries had abandoned the people there (the Paravas) shortly after baptizing them, and neglected to teach them about their new faith while allowing Portuguese colonists to steal their pearls, Francis headed to the coast. He arrived on the southern coast to find the situation was just as dire as he had heard: The native people knew next to nothing about Christianity and his fellow Europeans took advantage of their ignorance to make a profit off their labor. He set to work immediately by founding churches and teaching the Paravas, and though he made some converts and planted many churches, his efforts on the Pearl Fishery Coast were only a little bit more fruitful than his efforts in Japan. The Portuguese opposed his efforts to advance the Paravas economically and the upper-class Indian residents of the coast opposed his Christian teachings. In the end, he spent three years on the coats getting nowhere and accomplishing next to nothing.
So why is this story of a dead-end mission relevant today? Simple: Because of the Paravas and their pearls. The ears of the Portuguese colonists must truly have been deaf to humor to not hear the irony in their seizure of pearls in light of their abortive evangelical efforts and the “Pearl of Great Price” in Matthew 13. They encouraged the Paravas to dive for pearls, then took them away for their own use. They introduced Christianity to the Paravas, but then sent the missionaries elsewhere. They allowed the Paravas to come tantalizingly close to Christ’s metaphorical symbol for the Kingdom of Heaven and to the Kingdom of Heaven itself before snatching both away. Francis came to re-introduce the Pearl of Great Price to the land where pearls should have been abundant, and to cultivate the Kingdom of Heaven where it should have already been flourishing. He went, in the spirit of today’s gospel, both to “[proclaim] the good news of the Kingdom” (Matthew 9:35) among the Paravas, and, in the spirit of today’s Isaiah reading, to show the Paravas that the One who so briefly “[taught them] would no longer keep himself out of sight” (Isaiah 30:20). However imperfectly his adventure may have ended, he lived Christ’s message of hope by healing the broken in spirit, even if he failed to literally bind up their wounds. I can only aspire to do the same.
Tess Fitzsimmons ’19 is a sophomore in Lowell House.