The Legacy of St. Francis Xavier: Inculturation of The Gospel Then and Now

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2007 »Volume 44 2007 Number 1 »The Legacy Of St Francis Xavier Inculturation Of The Gospel Then And Now

By Robert Schreiter, C.PP.S.

Robert Schreiter, C.PP.S. is Professor of Doctrinal Theology at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, USA. He holds the professorship of theology and culture, sponsored by the Edward Schillebeeckx Foundation at the University of Nijmegen, the Netherlands. An internationally recognized expert in the areas of inculturation, reconciliation, and the world mission of the Church, he has authored many books including Constructing Local Theologies and Reconciliation. He is a visiting lecturer at the EAPI, Manila, Philippines.


The celebration of the 500th anniversary of the birth of Francis Xavier, one of the great Christian missionaries of all time, provides us the opportunity not only to explore elements of his remarkable life and activity, but also the impact of his legacy on subsequent generations of missionaries and, indeed, the entire Church. As a towering figure, he stood on the threshold of a new missionary era, inaugurating an endeavor that reaches down some four centuries to our very own time. Elements he brought to his missionary preaching, his personal spirituality, and his vision for the Church in Asia continue to open horizons for us.

In this presentation celebrating his memory, I wish to focus on one element of his extraordinary legacy; namely, his contribution to our understanding of inculturation. "Inculturation," a distinctively theological term, has to do with the manner in which the message of the Gospel is shaped and presented within the context of the culture into which it is being introduced. It is a modern term, dating from the mid-1970s, although the meaning and activity it tries to express reach much further back in history. Its roots can be discerned already in the New Testament, especially in the discussions about the entry of Gentile Christians into what had been up to that time a Jewish community of believers. Through the centuries, efforts to understand the relationship between gospel and culture have waxed and waned, stimulated by dealing with changing circumstances and responding to new challenges. But it has been only in the most recent period, in which the Church has become (in the words of Karl Rahner) a "world church," that is, a Church that is not restricted to a European understanding of how Christian faith is to be lived, that the study of processes of inculturation have taken on a new urgency.

This investigation of Xavier’s contribution to the understanding of inculturation will proceed in the following manner. In the first part, I will sketch out something of the world in which Xavier lived, not only in terms of the life-world in which he found himself, but also the intellectual and theological universe that shaped his interpretation of it. This is important to do, because the sudden awareness of a much larger world was, for the Europeans of that time, something that profoundly challenged their ways of thinking. There was a new "exteriority," that is, a sense of otherness that went far beyond their previous knowledge and required a significant reinterpretation of Europe’s place within that world. Xavier lived, in other words, at a time that would require what has come to be called a "paradigm shift" in order to reposition Europe and Christianity in the world. This was more than an intellectual problem to be pondered. Xavier’s missionary activity—that took him to Mozambique, India, Malaysia, the Moluccan Islands, Japan, and to the doorstep of China—meant that he was profoundly immersed in the changes that were shaking Europe’s self-awareness.

To do this, I will look at some of the implications of the changes that were thrust upon Europe by those Spanish and Portuguese voyages, as well as what kind of thinking about the world, about the relation of gospel and culture, were available at that time.

In the second part, I will focus upon Xavier’s own response to bringing the gospel into Asia, especially upon his years in Japan, from August 1549 to November 1551. I single out Japan, because here, he encountered a highly developed civilization that was at par with, and in some ways exceeded, his experience of Europe. Rather than preaching to and converting illiterate fisherman and sailors as he had in India and Malaysia, he was now confronted with sophisticated philosophical and theological systems unknown to Europe before. This will involve a look at the methods Xavier employed to meet this new challenge, as well as an examination of one specific theological challenge he faced, namely, what word would be used to translate "God" in the Japanese context.

The third and final portion of the presentation will look at the legacy of Xavier for our understanding of inculturation, especially in the generation of missionaries who followed him, as well as some of the enduring elements in his legacy down to the present time.

The Challenges of European "Discovery"

The 15th century was a period of dramatic discovery for Europe and for parts of Asia. Already in the previous century, Chinese ships were moving across the Indian Ocean, reaching as far as the eastern coast of Africa (see the accounts in Menzies 2002). The Portuguese were traveling down the western coast of Africa, as far as what is now Angola. The voyages of Christopher Columbus to what he thought were the Indies at the end of that century, plus those of Vasco da Gama and others, opened up an entirely new world for Europe.

The discovery of these new territories raised not only economic and political questions, but also theological ones. For much of Christian Europe, the religious "other" had largely been Jews and Muslims, both of which were related, in their minds, to Christianity—either as an antecedent faith (in the case of Judaism) or a subsequent, heretical offshoot (Islam). To be sure, there was some vague knowledge of Buddhism (as testified by Clement of Alexan-dria, as early as the third century), and of the travels of merchants such as Marco Polo and others in the 13th century. The incursions of Syrian missionaries into China and Southeast Asia, and their significant efforts at inculturation, would have been completely unknown to Europeans at that time.

Thus, what knowledge of others that existed was very much at the periphery of European consciousness at that time. Consequently, the instrumentarium for understanding and relating to these others was general and vague. All those who were outside Christianity and Judaism were labeled pagani or pagans, either (a) non-believers living within the confines of what had been the Roman Empire, (b) those living outside those confines but subject to a Christian ruler (i.e., in colonized lands), or (c) those who were beyond the reach of Christian rule. St. Thomas Aquinas’s thinking presented in his Summa contra Gentiles served as a benchmark for how to operate in these uncharted waters. Whereas, Judaism shared with Christianity God’s own revelation, other religions were to be approached on the basis of reason and through argument. The mysteries revealed by God would not contradict reason, even though other gods may speak in ways not consonant with reason. Both reason and the structure of language were seen to be uniform and unchanging across peoples and territories.1

How to deal with what we would call today "oral cultures" did not fall within these parameters. This is evidenced by the famous debate between Sepúlveda and de las Casas in Valladolid in 1550. The question examined there was whether the natives of the Americas were indeed true human beings and whether, therefore, they could be enslaved and whether they required baptism. Although this debate was precipitated by the contradictions that come with colonial rule (i.e., by what right are peoples subjugated who have engaged in no aggression against the colonizing power?), there were deeper issues precisely about how to construe otherness and how to relate to it (for discussion of this, see Cervantes 1994). While the fishermen of the Comorin coast and the traders in Malacca and the Moluccan Islands would be seen as less "civilized" and underdeveloped, civilizations such as those that Xavier would encounter in Japan would have to be dealt with as the first generations of Christianity dealt with classical Greece and Rome. It was precisely the sophistication of Japanese society and Buddhist philosophy that would prompt Xavier to move toward a greater inculturation of his message.

As to ideas of inculturation itself, there were again no means to think about this. The concept of distinctive cultures would not begin to develop until the 18thcentury in the works of Montesquieu and Voltaire in France, and among the German Romantics such as Hamann and Herder. The only model of civilization was that of Greece and Rome. To think of other peoples as having distinctive ways of life was something that would only come after an extensive experience with otherness of some duration.2

Nor was there a conception of the integrity of other religious traditions. The concept of religion as an autonomous and innerly coherent set of beliefs does not come into European consciousness until the time of the Thirty Years’ War, when Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists partitioned Europe according to the religious tendencies of local rulers, following the formula cuius regioeius religioReligiowas still understood at the time of Xavier in its adjectival sense, namely, as a more intense following of Christ in monastic life. This sense has been retained, at least vestigially, in the Catholic vocabulary of describing the consecrated state as "religious life."

Rather, the religious landscape was seen through the lens of truth and error. Whatever deviated from Christian truth was error. If there was discernible coherence within those webs of error, it was achieved through the work of the devil, who created these schemes to delude people into his wily ways.

Roughly contemporary to Xavier’s own missionary activity, the friars who were evangelizing Mexico found themselves puzzling over the striking parallels between Aztec beliefs and practices and their own Christian faith. They saw only two ways to explain this: Perhaps Thomas the Apostle, who had reached India, had journeyed also to the New World, and the parallels they saw with Christian faith were the decadent remnants of what had once been Christian belief and practice. Or, alternatively, Aztec religion had been devised by the devil precisely to keep the peoples of Mexico from converting to true religion and Christianity (for discussion of this, see Cervantes 1994).

From a theological point of view, a general proposal of what we would call inculturation was in place, already from the time of Pope Gregory the Great. His famous letter to Augustine of Canterbury, who had been sent to convert the Britons, set down what was to become the working principle for Christian missionaries:



The temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed; but let the idols that are in them be destroyed; let holy water be made and sprinkled in the said temples, let altars be erected and relics placed. For if those temples are well built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God; that the nation, seeing their temples are not destroyed may remove error from their hearts, and knowing and adoring the true God, may they more familiarly resort to places to which they have been accustomed….For there is no doubt that it is impossible to efface everything at once from their obdurate minds; because he who endeavors to ascend to the highest place, rises by degrees or steps, and not by leaps.3


Gregory’s advice came to be understood as a principle for discernment and practice: keep of the culture whatever is not contrary to the gospel. Refocus and reshape existent practices to be consonant with Christian faith. Xavier himself states this principle elegantly: "When something is not a blasphemy against God, then it would seem of greatest advantage not to change it, in case a change would not be as well a service to God."4 This principle actually served missionaries for centuries quite well, indeed down to the mid-20th century, when modern understandings of culture and of the integrity of religious traditions began to take hold in Catholic thought.

Thus, the instruments for evangelization and for inculturation available to Xavier in his time were, by our standards, rather sparse. There was not an adequate way of thinking about otherness beyond a binary of truth and falsehood, of civilization and barbarism. Not until the texts of Asian religious traditions could be studied and translated was there an awareness of their complexity and depth.

Given this jejune repertoire that was available to Xavier, it is amazing to see what he was able to achieve in the 27 months he spent in Japan. One can discern both a reliance on traditional approaches to evangelization and some distinctive innovations. It is to that story, and Xavier’s efforts at inculturation, that we now turn.

Xavier in Japan

Japan—or the "Silver Islands" as it was called—had only been discovered by the Portuguese in the year when Xavier arrived in Asia (1542). The stories about its wealth and the sophistication of its society dazzled many—Xavier among them. In 1547, when Xavier had arrived in Malacca, a Portuguese sea captain whom he knew, Jorge Alvarez, introduced him to a young Japanese man who had accompanied him from Japan. His name was Anjiro. He was of the Samurai caste, and had committed a murder in Japan. He had first been confined to a monastery, but had escaped and taken refuge on Alvarez’s ship and had sailed with him in 1546 to Malacca. The weight of his past sins bore down upon him, and Alvarez had suggested he meet the "holy Padre," as Xavier was known. He already spoke some Portuguese. The encounter with Anjiro and Anjiro’s accounts of Japan immediately enchanted Xavier, and brought him to set his sights on bringing the gospel to Japan. As Georg Schurhammer, the great scholar of Xavier’s life and work, put it:



…during this brief time he experienced with Anjiro and especially with Alvarez…had opened a view into an entirely new world: a great, populous land, a highly educated people, intellectually curious, receptive to the truth of Christianity, approachable on the grounds of reason—completely different from the ignorant fisherfolk of South India or the headhunters of the Moluccan Islands. Here Christ was calling! (op. cit., 8).


Early in 1548, Xavier wrote back to Europe:



It seems to me that within two years I or another of the Society will go to Japan. In the meantime, Angero [sic] will learn better Portuguese, and we will instruct him in the faith. We will translate the entirety of Christian doctrine, with an extensive explanation of the articles of faith into the language of Japan, since Angero can write the Japanese characters very well.5


For Xavier, nothing surpassed Japan as a possible place for bringing the gospel. In writing to the entire Society of Jesus, he exclaimed: "They are the best people that have yet been discovered, and it seems to me that never will another people be found among unbelievers that surpass the Japanese."6 In April 1549 Xavier set sail for Japan with two other Jesuits, Anjiro (now baptized and a professed Jesuit Brother with the name Paul of the Holy Faith), two other Japanese, and two servants. He arrived on the coast of Japan on 15 August. He had mapped out his campaign for bringing the gospel to Japan. He would go first to the Emperor, and then to the universities to engage intellectuals. There he would also study Buddhist texts in order to understand what would be needed to win the people of Japan for Christ. As soon as the ground for evangelization had been laid, Xavier planned to call upon Europe, especially his confreres in Coimbra and Rome, to leave their universities to engage the scholars in Japan. (He would appeal especially for Dutchmen and Germans, since one of the major universities, at Bandou, lay in the north. Those denizens of Northern Europe would be able to endure the cold there.)

We see in Xavier’s plan a combination of both a time-honored mode of evangelization and a new one. Much of the conversion of Europe had involved bringing tribal and political leaders to Christ, with the understanding that their subjects would then follow. He intended to use the same strategy in Japan. What he did not know was that, at that time, the Emperor was overshadowed in political power by other warlords and especially the Daimyo. During this period (known as the Tokugawa period in Japan), the Emperor would not gain preeminence until the restoration of the Emperor Meiji in 1868. Upon arriving in Japan, Xavier quickly adjusted his strategy on that front. Eventually, he did meet the Emperor Yoshitaka at Yamaguchi, and presented himself as the envoy of the governor of India, offering the Emperor gifts of such novelty and lavishness as the Japanese had never seen: a great chest with elaborate clockwork, a glockenspiel, two pairs of spectacles, a mirror, brocaded garments, books, and Portuguese wine. When the Emperor wanted to reciprocate with gifts of silver and gold, Xavier refused them, asking only for the right to preach and to accept converts. Yoshitaka granted him this, promulgating a decree that would allow Xavier to proclaim his new Law (as the Emperor called it), and decreeing as well that no one would harm him. He also gave Xavier a vacant monastery for his use.

The turn to the universities of Japan was more innovative. Xavier was impressed by the size and extent of these institutions, and he both visited them and welcomed curious monks and nuns to his own residence. He was known to go to the universities and there read aloud from the compendium of Christian doctrine that he and Anjiro had prepared. He had for his own use a text of it written in Latin script. His hearers were amused by his pronunciation, but were also impressed by his dedication and his evident holiness. In the convent in which he now dwelled, he was soon giving two lectures a day, which was followed by disputations. The themes went far beyond the religious; astronomy, meterology, and geography were often discussed. Again, his curious audience was impressed by the range and extent of his knowledge.

To turn to the intellectuals and to engage in debate was, for the most part, an innovative approach to evangelization. To take such a task indicated Xavier’s implicit understanding that to convince a society such as Japan’s of the superiority of his teaching, he had to impress his hearers with the extent of his knowledge as well as persuade them by the passion of his convictions. While there are some examples earlier in history of taking this approach to intellectuals (among the Apologists of the second and third century, and the dialogues of Ramon Llull in Spain in the 13th century), Xavier’s approach probably owed more to his own university education in Paris, and the vigorous debates that were carried out there with Lutherans and Calvinists. Both the education he received, and the emphasis on disputation that still played such a large role in university pedagogy, certainly inclined him to this strategy. Believing in the universality of reason, such an approach to evangelization may not have struck Xavier as what we would call inculturation; but as we shall see later, it was to become an important means of bringing the gospel in the next generations of Jesuit missionaries.

Besides looking at the audiences to which Xavier addressed himself, and the means he used to address them, it is worthwhile to focus on some more specific, religious, and theological issues that he chose to address.

In his presentation of Christian faith in Japanese, Xavier had chosen the name "Dainichi" to represent God, the term that the Shingon sect of Buddhism used to designate the source of all things. Xavier presented Dainichi as the creator of all things, the ultimate goal of the immortal soul. This discussion of creation would have sounded odd to Buddhists, since the common belief was that all things were always in origination and in disappearance like foam on the wave of the sea. This alien teaching raised all kinds of questions for the monks: Was this God good or evil? If he was good, why had he created evil, such as the devil, suffering, and eternal hellfire? The often heated debates resulted, however, in no one accepting the Christian faith.

It was only sometime later that an incident precipitated a change. Brother Fernandez, one of Xavier’s companions, was preaching in the street, when one of his hearers came and spit in his face to show his contempt. Fernandez maintained his composure, calmly wiped the spittle away, and then continued to preach. Such self-control impressed his hearers and led them to believe that, although his preaching sounded to them absurd, a teaching that could bring about such demeanor was worth serious consideration. One member of the audience followed Fernandez back to his dwelling and began instruction in Christian faith. Others soon followed him.

However, this success began to arouse resistance from some of the monks. One of the bonzes began to question him further about this Creator. Did he have color or form, and from whence had he come? Xavier replied that he had neither form nor accident, that he was pure Substance and did not derive from any element but was, rather, the creator of all of them. He was the origin of all things, was omnipotent, good, wise, and eternal. The bonzes declared themselves satisfied, stating that although this foreigner spoke a different language and wore an unusual garb, his teaching, and their own were the same.

This sudden turn of mind on the part of the Shingon bonzes puzzled Xavier and made him suspicious. To be sure, Shingon Buddhists appeared to have much in common with Catholics: they used rosaries and incense, they wore vestments for their religious services, and chanted in choir together. He had seen a representation of their God, Dainichi, as having no body but having three heads. Could this all be vestigial elements from the teaching of Thomas the Apostle, or was it the work of the devil? When he questioned them about other Christian doctrines, such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the redemptive value of Christ’s death, the bonzes had no response.

Xavier had adopted "Dainichi" as the name for God, thinking that this was indeed the god worshipped by Shingon Buddhists. He was told that the word meant "Great Sun" (dai nichi); the Sun, after all, was believed to be the origin of the Japanese people. But from his converts he came to learn that Dainichi was indeed at the center of Shingon belief, but was not a personal god at all. It was closer to what philosophers had called material prima, matter without form. Moreover, Dainichialso had an obscene connotation: as the source out of which all things originated, it also was a term for pudenda.

Up to this time, Xavier had gone through the streets with his companions, shouting "Pray to Dainichi! (Dainichi no ogami are)" Now, realizing that he had been tricked by the devil, he returned to the streets, saying "Do not pray to Dainichi! (Dainichi no ogami naso)" (Schurhammer 1928:30).

Resolved not to be so entrapped again, he insisted now on using on the Latin "Deus" for God. This, he hoped, would avoid any misunderstanding in the future. This maintaining of the Latin form for the word "God" brought its own problems, however. "Deus" (or the Spanish "Dios") sounded much like the Japanese "Dai uso," which means "great lie." This was hardly an improvement over Dainichi. Indeed, for many decades thereafter, Buddhists would mock Christians by calling their God "Deus" (ibid., 1928:38-39).

Xavier sought to settle this problem by preparing a text which he completed with Anjiro’s help, in both Latin and Chinese characters. Although this text has been lost, it appears from a later Jesuit missionary that the Chinese Tenshu was chosen to designate the concept "God." Tenshu, a Chinese term (and written in Chinese characters) is generally translated "Lord of Heaven." This remained in use until early in the 17th century, when a Japanized form of "Deus"—"Deusu" was introduced. Protestant missionaries in the 19th century introduced a Japanized form of the English "God"—Gotto as an alternative. Toward the end of the 19th century the term kami came to stand for the Christian God. Kami means "spirit" or "deity" (ibid., 1928:40f).

Xavier’s dilemmas with translating a term as fundamental to religious belief as "God" illustrates one of the principal issues in inculturation. In Xavier’s time it could still be believed that there could be a word-for-word semantic equivalence between languages. Although Xavier has a formidable reputation as a linguist, having learned Tamil, Malay, and Japanese, his actual command of these languages was far from perfect. Schurhammer believes that Anjiro, Xavier’s teacher in Japanese, was quite gifted linguistically, but did not have much formal education. Young Brother Fernandez, who was only 22 years of age when he arrived in Japan, exhibited a far superior command of the language than Xavier. The semantic ambiguities that go with many of the languages of East Asia (where tone can change the meaning, where the characters with which a word is written can also change the meaning), were something that Xavier was yet to discover.

The Legacy of Xavier’s Work toward Inculturation

So how are we to assess the legacy of Xavier regarding inculturation? Again, we cannot retroject a 20th century concept back into the 16th century. Nor, as was pointed out at the beginning of this presentation, can we judge their understanding of otherness against standards of our own time.

Xavier was, of course, a man of his time and a product of the education he had received. The general principle of inculturation presented by Pope Gregory the Great at the turn of the seventh century—that which was not contrary to the Gospel could be preserved—continued to serve Xavier well in his work in Asia, especially in Japan.

Notable about Xavier was his commitment to learning languages. He realized that without being able to communicate with people in their own medium, the effectiveness of his preaching would be much diminished. As imperfectly as he managed to achieve proficiency, he recognized the necessity of striving to speak in the language of the people whom he was addressing. His drafting of texts in Tamil, Malay, and Japanese (with the help of his translators) was not only for the purpose of having texts from which he could read, but also to make them available to others. The choice of texts was significant. For Japan, he prepared a small catechism with the Ten Commandments, an outline of the faith, the seven penitential psalms, and a larger outline of the faith (based on his catechism for the Moluccans). Unfortunately, all of these have been lost (ibid., 1928:22). The Jesuit missionaries who came after him—such as Ricci in China, and de Rhodes in Vietnam—continued to follow him in this regard. This strategy of preparing texts resulted in later times in compiling grammars and dictionaries, thereby rescuing languages from extinction. In the case of de Rhodes’ catechism in Vietnam, it gave the country a Latin script that is used to this day (Phan 1998).

Xavier did not distinguish himself by learning about the religious traditions with which he came in contact, although certainly in Japan he tried to engage the Buddhist monks he encountered. The study of other religious traditions would not become a characteristic of missionary inculturation until late in the 19th century. What he did inaugurate, however, was debating with intellectuals. As was noted earlier, there is here an implicit commitment to inculturation and to respecting culture. By trying to understand the very form and dynamic of a culture—what in the second half of the 20th century would come to be called the "evangelization of cultures"—a distinctive form of evangelization and inculturation could begin to take shape. Xavier’s own attitude may have been formed by trying to win debates in the polemical style of the Counterreformation, but it was at least an acknowledgement of the ideas of the other. It was the next generation of Jesuit missionaries who picked up this idea and carried it further—figures such as de Nobili in India, and Ricci and his companions in China. These men met the culture at its most sophisticated level, mastering languages and concepts, and creating genuinely inculturated theological texts in their respective settings.7 While the subsequent Rites Controversy in China dampened the efforts at inculturation that had been developed by the Jesuits there, these efforts by Jesuit missionaries formed the single best historical precedent for the discussions of inculturation that were to be reinaugurated in the 1970s.

Xavier’s problematic encounter with the problem of translation of theological terms reminds us of the great difficulty in genuine inculturation. Especially in dealing with such fundamental concepts as the concept of God, we can find ourselves caught between the Scylla of maintaining a doctrinal purity at the cost of estrangement and alienation (i.e., Xavier’s choosing to keep the word "Deus") and the Charybdis of using familiar terms but with the risk of confusing or diluting a basic tenet of faith (his choosing "Dainichi" or "Tenshu"). These questions of translation have dogged missionaries and those concerned with a genuine inculturation ever since. There is no easy solution. More elaborate and elegant efforts in sociolinguistics, in the trying out of translations with different audiences, and in the continuing review of changes happening in languages do not of themselves guarantee success on this front. Xavier’s encounter with this dilemma, in which it was not only a transition between languages but a profound transition among cultures themselves, remains for us something of a cautionary tale in moving through language and symbolic universes.8

There is yet another element in Xavier’s missionary activity that has contributed to the development of inculturation. His tireless dedication to his missionary work, the admiration and devotion he evoked from his coworkers and from those who led to Christian faith, and his concern not only for the transmission of faith but also for the integral well-being of his flock created an ideal-type of the Christian missionary. Thereafter, missionaries were to be marked by their unflagging zeal, their heroic commitment to their vocation despite hardship and suffering, and their unwavering solidarity with the people whom they encountered. While this created a missionary spirituality that could romanticize the missionary vocation and elevate the mortal missionary to unrealistic expectations, it did serve as an inspiration for many in the subsequent centuries to undertake the missionary task. The missionary spirituality we now have today—born out of the postcolonial crisis mission faced in the 1960s and 1970s—is perhaps more modest in scope, underscoring walking with the people rather than heroics. But in both cases it requires a commitment both to the vocation and to the people among whom they walk that is necessary for any genuine inculturation to take place. Such a commitment to the people to whom he had been sent reminds us of how Xavier met the fundamental conditions under which any inculturation can aim for success—namely, winning the trust and the affection of the people.

The term "inculturation" (at least in its nominal form) was to come out of a General Congregation of the Society of Jesus in 1973, and to be presented to the world by Father Pedro Arrupe the following year. Four years later, it would be taken up by the Synod on catechesis and be used by Pope John Paul II in his Apostolic Exhortation "Catechesis tradende." While it may not be possible to trace a straight line from Francis Xavier to that occurrence some four centuries after his death, it speaks nonetheless of part of the inspiration of his missionary work being maintained within and through the Society of Jesus. That too, in itself, is a considerable legacy from the great saint, Francis Xavier.

Today, given efforts to centralize decision-making in the Church, and to make translations slavish mirror images of Latin texts, attempts at inculturation are being hampered in many places.9 Anxieties about pluralism, the effects of globalization, and the possible loss of control are causing this constriction. Francis Xavier stands as a figure who, despite the limits of his time and of his worldview, was able to transcend those horizons and create in many ways something new. We need his courage and his commitment in both the missionary enterprise and the larger task of inculturation today. May he continue to inspire those who preach the gospel and seek to incarnate it in the cultures of the world today.




1. The idea of genuinely alternative rationalities is relatively recent. An important work that established that was Claude Lévi-Strauss, La pensée sauvage (Paris: Plon, 1962).

2. An elegant account of this history may be found in McGrane 1989.

3. Cited in the Venerable Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, I, 30.

4. Xavier’s instruction to Torres, cited in Schurhammer 1947:34.

5. Letter to the Society in Rome (20 January 1548) in Epistolae S. Francisci Xaverii (Rome: Monumenta Historica Societas Iesu, 1944), I, 392.

6. Letter of 5 November 1549 in ibid., II, 189.

7. On de Nobili, see Clooney 1990:25-36; on Ricci, Bettray 1955.

8. I have wrote this somewhat in "Symbol/Symbole/ Symboltheorien: X. Missionswissenschaftlich," Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, VII, 1932.

9. I have examined this in "Culture and Inculturation in the Church: Forty Years of Dovetailing the Gospel with the Human Kaleidoscope," New Theology Review 18 (February 2005), 17-26.









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