Feature: Xavier's meandering mission

By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religion Correspondent  |  Dec. 2, 2002 at 6:02 PM
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 2 (UPI) -- Church history is full of ironic twist and turns, to wit the meandering mission tale of St. Francis Xavier, who died at age 46 off the coast of China 450 years ago this Tuesday.

Some might consider much of his Far Eastern ministry a failure, considering that he never made it to the Celestial Empire and his initial successes in Japan were rolled back to the extent that Christianity ceased to exist there for many centuries.

But a different case can be made if one looks at this story from a longer perspective. Francis Xavier, the Navarre-born patron saint of missionaries, was a founding member of the Jesuits, one of whose assignments it was to undo the Lutheran Reformation.

Yet Japanese musicologists believe that he of all people planted the seeds for today's "Bach boom" in their country. Johann Sebastian Bach, whose popularity in Japan now seems to have some modest missionary effects, was, of course, a Lutheran composer.

If all this sounds bewildering, let's proceed chronologically. On Aug. 15, 1749, Francis Xavier landed in Kagashima in Japan. He came from Portuguese Goa in India via the Molucca Islands and spent the first year learning the Japanese language; soon he preached the gospel in many cities in the southern part of the country.

Over the next decades, the Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries who followed Francis Xavier baptized 20 percent of Japan's population, including members of princely families. It soon became fashionable to promenade around Nagasaki carrying rosaries.

However, in 1587, the shogun Hideyoshi expelled all missionaries. A murderous persecution of all Christians followed. Believers were crucified, burned at the stake, tortured to death or hanged upside-down over cesspools to intensify their suffering.

Soon Christianity disappeared from Japan, except for a few small islands, where it mixed with other faiths into a syncretistic amalgam. However, one thing never quite vanished, according to contemporary Japanese musicologists -- their compatriots' appreciation of the Western tonality Francis Xavier and his brethren had introduced to Japan.

There was the Gregorian chant. There were the roaring organs the missionaries built from bamboo pipes. They trained Japanese children so well in handling the Queen of the Instruments that in the 1560s three young princes from Nippon were competent enough to be sent to Europe to play the organ before illustrious audiences, including in the Vatican.

By the time Christianity was eradicated in Japan, in the early 17th century, elements of Western music had infiltrated Japanese folk song. That influence evidently remained strong enough to help Bach's art sweep across the island nation more than four centuries later.

Now Francis Xavier's import does mission once again, albeit in an indirect and limited way, the organist Masaaki Suzuki told this writer. A little over a decade ago, Suzuki founded the Japan Bach Consortium and turned it into an ensemble of world renown.

Its concerts are always sold out. Bach aficionados pay hundreds of dollars for a ticket to the consortium's performance of the Christmas Oratorio or St. Matthew Passion.

"It's very moving to watch these enormous crowds follow the Japanese translations of the German lyrics word for word," said Yoshikazu Tokuzen, former president of his country's National Christian Council. "Where else in the world do you find non-Christians so engrossed in Christian texts?"

Suzuki added that after each performance non-Christian members of the audience crowd him on the podium to talk to him about topics that are normally taboo in Japanese society -- death, for example. "Then they inevitably ask me what 'hope' means to Christians."

It seems ironic enough that Bach, the Lutheran, now does the missionary work Francis Xavier, the Jesuit, had started back in the 16th century. But now figure this: Masashi Masuda from Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, converted to Christianity after hearing a recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations played by Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist.

Guess what Masuda did next? He became a Jesuit and is now teaching systematic theology at Tokyo's Sophia University, which is owned by his -- and Francis Xavier's -- order.

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