History of the Society of Jesus - Part V

A narrative account of the History of the Society of Jesus by Anton Azzopardi S.J.

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V 


Part V - On to the Open Seas

George and his friend Andrew, a sprightly young man of eighteen, with sparkling eyes and a rather tan complexion, were sitting on a bench in the Upper Baracca Gardens about sunset. Their talk strayed to such matters as the recent World Cup and the participating teams, the Pope's apostolic visits to various countries and Malta's membership in the European Union.

"Oh, by the way!" blurted out George, slapping hard his forehead, "I have received a letter from my Jesuit friend Fr John in answer to my query about the origin of the Jesuit foreign missions. I had promised to go and see him myself about this matter, and he would tell me all about it, but, by Jove, he forestalled me and wrote this letter instead." George fished out from his pocket three or four sheets of paper."

"Good heavens! Did Fr John write all that?" drawled Andrew riveting his eyes on the sheets in amazement. "He must have had the guts and the time to write such a treatise!"

George retorted, "It would not have made much difference to him in effort and time had he related all this to me viva voce!"

"Indeed! But go on! Read it all."

George gingerly unfolded the sheets and started reading gravely:

"Dear George,

"Since I shall be away for some time and won't be able to see you before I leave, I thought of writing what I intended to tell you about the origin of the Jesuit foreign missions, as you requested of me. So here it is:

"You realize, dear George, that in the sixteenth century going overseas meant a remarkable feat for everyone, but even more so for  missionaries who besides having to endure the hardship and the immense difficulties arising from staggering distances and lack of proper means, they still had to face unfamiliar cultures, strange languages and at times even Christian perfidy.

"Ignatius accepted to embark on these ventures with the generous encouragement of Portugal's high-minded monarch John III, and it was from Lisbon and under the flag of St Vincent that the first Jesuit missionaries sailed away from Europe on to the open seas.

"The prime example was Francis Xavier. Xavier's assignment to the Far East was ultimately a consequence of the anxiety of King John III of Portugal to bring the faith to the teeming millions of his vast colonial empire. Doctor Diego de Gouvea, the Portuguese head of the College of Sainte Barbe in Paris, recalled the zealous group of men round Ignatius of Loyola and recommended them to his monarch as possible missionaries. Through his ambassador in Rome, King John asked Ignatius for help. Although there were at the time in Rome only six Jesuits, Ignatius picked on two, that is, Simão Rodrigues and Nicolá Bobadilla. Everything was set for their departure. However, a serious illness prostrated Bobadilla, and on March 14, 1540, Ignatius informed Francis Xavier, who at the time was engaged in many charitable works in various Italian cities, that he was to go to the Indies instead. Xavier's reply was simply, ‘Fine. I'm your man.'  Two days later the two Jesuits were on the road to Lisbon."

Andrew was listening attentively, and at this point he puckered his eyebrows in astonishment. George continued his reading:

"When the two Jesuits  arrived there, King John was so impressed  by their zeal for evangelization that he decided to retain one of them in Portugal for work among priests and people. He chose Rodrigues. On April 7, 1541, his thirty-fifth birthday, Xavier with Micer Paul, a secular priest (who later became a Jesuit), and Francisco Mansilhas, a Portuguese volunteer and aspirant to the priesthood, sailed for the Indies, reaching Goa after a thirteen-month fatiguing journey. They arrived on May 6, 1542.

"The great missionary work of Xavier in the Far East and the exciting incidents he experienced together with the great successes he achieved in spreading the Gospel and building the Church there need more than a huge volume to relate. Suffice it to say now that for ten years, Francis visited India, Malacca, Java, Moluccas and Japan with great vigour, converting thousands to the faith. He died within reach of China in 1552. Pope Gregory XV canonized him in 1622."

"A great man, indeed, Francis was!" remarked Andrew, "No wonder the Church chose him as a patron of foreign Missions.

"But wait!" retorted George. "That was only the beginning of the Jesuit missions in the Far East. There were Jesuit missions in lands beyond other seas as well. But let me read on!

"The first Jesuits assigned to Brazil were a party of six men unusually apt to grapple with the thorny problems indigenous to the colony. Their superior was a 32-year old  Fr Manuel da Nóbrega. Two weeks after their arrival in 1549, the Jesuits had organized children of the Portuguese and nearby natives into classes of writing, singing and religious instruction. Within five months they catechised and baptised a hundred natives and were preparing five to six hundred catechumens.

In 1550, four more Jesuits arrived, followed three weeks later by the most illustrious of all who went to Brazil in that era, the 19-year old sickly and badly crippled scholastic José de Anchieta. In the meeting between Anchieta and Nóbrega began one of the great fellowships in mission history.

From their rude mud hut at São Salvador, later known as Bahia, grew the Collegio Maximo, the cradle of Brazilian culture.

In 1553 Nóbrega reached beyond the mountains to the roaming and fickle tribe of Tupi Indians, and made the site there the centre of his apostolate. There the natives settled in community. That site gradually grew to become eventually the modern city of São Paolo.

Through all his forty-four years in Brazil, Anchieta dedicated himself fully to the mission. Within six months after his arrival, he had composed a rough draft of the grammar of the Tupi-Guarani language. He also wove Christian concepts into native songs. The Jesuits succeeded in transforming Brazil by welding into close union the two powerful influences of religion and civilization.

And there was Africa too. However,
the first ventures in this continent, all sponsored by the Portuguese Province, did not meet with similar success, for they either moved slowly or met with complete frustration. In 1548 two Jesuits entered Morocco and two others entered  Congo. The ruler of the Congo at the time  was initially hospitable, but seven years later, that is, in 1555 he expelled the missionaries owing to a split on the question of polygamy.

That same year two other Jesuits penetrated Ethiopia, a country with a large population of Monophysite Christians, ruled by a wily Negus who would promise to join Catholicism every time he was under the threat of Moslem marauders, but broke his promise once the threat was no more. Besides, his vassals would hardly tolerate any change in their own religious belief. There were further missionary efforts in Ethiopia, but the results were not encouraging. It was only years later that the missions in Africa began to take root.

That is how the foreign missions of the Jesuits first started. I hope I have satisfied your queries. God bless you. Fr John."

"Fr John, of course," quipped Andrew with a beaming and baffling smile, "does not breathe a word on the beginning of the Maltese Jesuits' foreign missions, does he?"

"No he doesn't." replied George, "But I had not asked him for that either! It was about a month ago that old Fr Martin, another Jesuit you know, explained to me how the Maltese Jesuits started their foreign missions in India. I can tell you all about it in a few words, if you like."

"Please do" rejoined Andrew.

"You must remember that prior to 1947, Malta formed part of the territory of the Jesuit Sicilian Province. So Maltese Jesuits belonged to that Province. But we have to go back to the early 1920s. It was in 1923, if I remember well," George rattled on, "at the 27th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus in Rome, that the Sicilian Provincial Fr Liborio Rubino contacted the Provincial of Belgium, Fr Ferdinand Willaert, and started talking about the vast Belgian mission of Culcutta (now Kolkatta) in India. Fr Rubino asked Fr Willaert whether it would be possible to send a few Jesuits from the Sicilian Province to help the Belgians in the Kolkatta Mission with a view to the eventual taking over a part of the vast territory and make it their own mission. Fr Willaert welcomed the idea, and so also did the General Fr Wladimir Ledóchowski when it was presented to him. The necessary contacts were soon established both with the Archbishop of Kolkatta and with the Mission Superior there. When Fr Rubino announced the project in his Province and asked for volunteers, the response was enthusiastic and overwhelming.

"Three Jesuits of the Sicilian Province were selected to form the first contingent for India; Fr Anton Debono (a Gozitan), Scholastic Giuseppe Cordaro (a Sicilian) and Scholastic Bernard Bugeja (a Maltese). They arrived in Kolkatta on 10th October 1924. After a period of preparation particularly for the study of the local language (and in theology for the scholastics), they were assigned to that part of the Kolkatta mission called Santal Parganas. The pioneer, Fr Debono, started the mission from his first ‘station' which was a mud hovel, but from that hovel he radiated his evangelization to the Santals. The second contingent of Jesuits arrived  in October 1926 consisting of three Maltese namely Fr Benjamin Cauchi, scholastic John Mallia Milanes and scholastic Joseph Portelli and a Sicilian Br Rosario Milito. In 1929 the then Archbishop of Kolkatta Mgr Ferdinand Perier formed definite plans for the new mission in the district of Santal Parganas. Eventually, this mission came to be fully entrusted to the Maltese Province.

"Now you have it all," concluded George with a radiant face as if he had achieved a great feat.

"Wonderful, indeed!" said Andrew. "Thank you indeed, but I have to leave now, for it has become rather late. Goodbye!" and he walked slowly away, enveloped, as it were, in deep thought.

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