Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

FRANCIS XAVIER.

It would not be amiss to know something true concerning the celebrated Francis Xavero, whom we call Xavier, surnamed the Apostle of the Indies. Many people still imagine that he established Christianty along the whole southern coast of India, in a score of islands, and above all in Japan. But thirty years ago, even a doubt on the subject was hardly to be tolerated in Europe. The Jesuits have not hesitated to compare him to St. Paul. His travels and miracles had been written in part by Tursellinus and Orlandini, by Levena, and by Partoli, all Jesuits, but very little known in France; and the less people were acquainted with the details the greater was his reputation.

When the Jesuit Bouhours composed his history, he (Bouhours) was considered as a man of very englightened mind, and was living in the best company in Paris; I do not mean the company of Jesus, but that of men of the world the most distinguished for intellect and knowledge. No one wrote in a purer or more unaffected style; it was even proposed in the French Academy that it should trespass against the rules of its institution, by receiving Father Bouhours into its body. He had another great advantage in the influence of his order, which then, by an almost inconceivable illusion, governed all Catholic princes.

Sound criticism was, it is true, beginning to rear its head; but its progress was slow: men were, in general, more anxious to write ably than to write what was true.

Bouhours wrote the lives of St. Ignatius and St. Francis Xavier almost without encountering a single objection. Even his comparison of St. Ignatius to Cæsar, and Xavier to Alexander, passed without animadversion; it was tolerated as a flower of rhetoric.

I have seen in the Jesuit’s college, Rue St. Jacques, a picture twelve feet long and twelve high, representing Ignatius and Xavier ascending to heaven, each in a magnificent chariot drawn by four milkwhite horses; and above, the Eternal Father, adorned with a fine white beard descending to His waist, with Jesus and the Virgin beside him; the Holy Ghost beneath them, in the form of a dove; and angels joining their hands, and bending down to receive Father Ignatius and Father Xavier.

Had anyone publicly made a jest of this picture, the reverend Father La Chaise, confessor to the king, would infallibly have had the sacrilegious scoffer honored with a lettre de cachet.

It cannot be denied that Francis Xavier is comparable to Alexander, inasmuch as they both went to India — so is Ignatius to Cæsar, both having been in Gaul. But Xavier, the vanquisher of the devil, went far beyond Alexander, the conqueror of Darius. How gratifying it is to see him going, in the capacity of a volunteer converter, from Spain into France, from France to Rome, from Rome to Lisbon, and from Lisbon to Mozambique, after making the tour of Africa. He stays a long time at Mozambique, where he receives from God the gift of prophecy: he then proceeds to Melinda, where he disputes on the Koran with the Mahometans, who doubtless understand his religion as well as he understands theirs, and where he even finds caciques, although they are to be found nowhere but in America. The Portuguese vessel arrives at the island of Zocotora, which is unquestionably that of the Amazons: there he converts all the islanders, and builds a church. Thence he reaches Goa, where he finds a pillar on which St. Thomas had engraved, that one day St. Xavier should come and re-establish the Christian religion, which had flourished of old in India. Xavier has no difficulty whatever in perusing the ancient characters, whether Indian or Hebrew, in which this prophecy is expressed. He forthwith takes up a hand-bell, assembles all the little boys around him, explains to them the creed, and baptizes them — but his great delight was to marry the Indians to their mistresses.

From Goa he speeds to Cape Comorin, to the fishing coast, to the kingdom of Travancore. His greatest anxiety, on arriving in any country, is to quit it. He embarks in the first Portuguese ship he finds, whithersoever it is bound, it matters not to Xavier; provided only that he is travelling somewhere, he is content. He is received through charity, and returns two or three times to Goa, to Cochin, to Cori, to Negapatam, to Meliapour. A vessel is departing for Malacca, and Xavier accordingly takes his passage for Malacca, in great despair that he has not yet had an opportunity of seeing Siam, Pegu, and Tonquin. We find him in the island of Sumatra, at Borneo, at Macassar, in the Moluccas, and especially at Ternate and Amboyna. The king of Ternate had, in his immense seraglio, a hundred women in the capacity of wives, and seven or eight hundred in that of concubines. The first thing Xavier does is to turn them all out. Please to observe that the island of Ternate is two leagues across.

Thence finding another Portugese vessel bound for Ceylon, he returns to Ceylon, where he makes various excursions to Goa and to Cochin. The Portuguese were already trading to Japan. A ship sails for that country: Xavier takes care to embark in it, and visits all the Japan islands. In short (says the Jesuit Bouhours), the whole length of Xavier’s routes, joined together, would reach several times around the globe.

Be it observed, that he set out on his travels in 1542, and died in 1552. If he had time to learn the languages of all the nations he visited, it was no trifling miracle: if he had the gift of tongues, it was a greater miracle still. But unfortunately, in several of his letters, he says that he is obliged to employ an interpreter; and in others he acknowledges that he finds extreme difficulty in learning the Japanese language, which he cannot pronounce.

The Jesuit Bouhours, in giving some of his letters, has no doubt that “St. Francis Xavier had the gift of tongues”; but he acknowledges that “he had it not always.” “He had it,” says he, “on several occasions; for, without having learned the Chinese tongue, he preached to the Chinese every morning at Amanguchi, which is the capital of a province in Japan.”

He must have been perfectly acquainted with all the languages of the East; for he made songs in them of the Paternoster, Ave-Maria, and Credo, for the instruction of the little boys and girls.

But the best of all is, that this man, who had occasion for a dragoman, spoke every tongue at once, like the apostles; and when he spoke Portuguese, in which language Bouhours acknowledges that the saint explained himself very ill, the Indians, the Chinese, the Japanese, the inhabitants of Ceylon and of Sumatra, all understood him perfectly.

One day in particular, when he was preaching on the immateriality of the soul, the motion of the planets, the eclipses of the sun and moon, the rainbow, sin and grace, paradise and purgatory, he made himself understood to twenty persons of different nations.

Is it asked how such a man could make so many converts in Japan? The simple answer is that he did not make any; but other Jesuits, who staid a long time in the country, by favor of the treaties between the kings of Portugal and the emperors of Japan, converted so many people, that a civil war ensued, which is said to have cost the lives of nearly four hundred thousand men. This is the most noted prodigy that the missionaries have worked in Japan.

But those of Francis Xavier are not without their merit. Among his host of miracles, we find no fewer than eight children raised from the dead. “Xavier’s greatest miracle,” says the Jesuit Bouhours, “was not his raising so many of the dead to life, but his not himself dying of fatigue.”

But the pleasantest of his miracles is, that having dropped his crucifix into the sea, near the island of Baranura, which I am inclined to think was the island of Barataria, a crab came, four-and-twenty hours after, bringing the cane between its claws.

The most brilliant of all, and after which no other deserves to be related, is that in a storm which lasted three days, he was constantly in two ships, a hundred and fifty leagues apart, and served one of them as a pilot. The truth of this miracle was attested by all the passengers, who could neither deceive nor be deceived.

Yet all this was written seriously and with success in the age of Louis XIV., in the age of the “Provincial Letters,” of Racine’s tragedies, of “Bayle’s Dictionary,” and of so many other learned works.

It would appear to be a sort of miracle that a man of sense, like Bouhours, should have committed such a mass of extravagance to the press, if we did not know to what excesses men can be carried by the corporate spirit in general, and the monachal spirit in particular. We have more than two hundred volumes entirely in this taste, compiled by monks; but what is most to be lamented is, that the enemies of the monks also compile. They compile more agreeably, and are read. It is most deplorable that, in nineteen-twentieths of Europe, there is no longer that profound respect and just veneration for the monks which is still felt for them in some of the villages of Aragon and Calabria.

The miracles of St. Francis Xavier, the achievements of Don Quixote, the Comic Romance, and the convulsionaries of St. Medard, have an equal claim on our admiration and reverence.

After speaking of Francis Xavier it would be useless to discuss the history of the other Francises. If you would be instructed thoroughly, consult the conformities of St. Francis of Assisi.

Since the fine history of St. Francis Xavier by the Jesuit Bouhours, we have had the history of St. Francis Régis by the Jesuit Daubenton, confessor to Philip V. of Spain: but this is small-beer after brandy. In the history of the blessed Régis, there is not even a single resuscitation.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25