India and St. Ignatius: Part I

Source: District of Asia

Here is the first part of what St. Ignatius did to India.. This is written by a Belgian Jesuit missionary worked in Northern India for more than 50 years. The article is taken from Ignatiana (1955) 12-16, 29-34, 55-61.

India was the first mission of the Society. It became so less perhaps through the choice or initiative of St. Ignatius and the first companions than through the will of others and those providential circumstances which sent Xavier to the East. During the whole lifetime of the founder and first General — not to say throughout the history of the Society — it was the first and foremost Jesuit mission. The great bulk of Jesuit missionaries sent out during the generalate of St. Ignatius, from 1541 to 1556, went to the East Indies. Granero, in his study on the missionary action and methods of St. Ignatius,1 lists seventy-one for India, against seventeen for Brazil and eight for the Congo.2 Adding to these the number of candidates who joined the Society in the missions during that time, these numbers grew, according to the same author, to one hundred and twenty-two for India, including Malacca, the Moluccas and Japan, twenty-six for Brazil and eight for the Congo.3 India was also the first province of the Society to be erected outside of Europe. It became the third province of the Society by a decree of St. Ignatius of October 10, 1549, with St. Francis Xavier as its first provincial—a decree that was carried into effect only in November 1551, when Xavier received his appointment.4 According to its first catalogue of 1553, the Indian Province counted some sixty-five members of whom nineteen were priests. After the death of St. Ignatius, the catalogue of 1557 lists thirty-one priests, forty-six brothers and thirty-four novices, one hundred and twenty-one in all;5 at a time when the whole Society counted little more than a thousand members.6

These facts show the place India took in the plans of the first General of the Society. They invite to a closer inspection of what India meant to him and to the Society of the time. This task has been made easy by the publication of the Documenta Indica, the first three volumes of which, published to date,7 together with the previously published Epistolae S. Francisci Xaverii,8 cover the whole generalate of St. Ignatius. It is mainly from the letters he received from or concerning India that St. Ignatius learned what India actually was. A survey of these letters and of their contents will enable us to understand the Jesuit Indian mission during the lifetime of St. Ignatius.9

The Documents

The letters from or concerning India are seventy-six in all. They were addressed to St. Ignatius or to the Society in Europe. Five never reached the addressee, written as they were in December 1556 or in 1557, after the death of St. Ignatius. Nor is it very likely that he ever read three letters written early in 1556, except perhaps one sent from Lisbon in April 1556. This leaves about seventy letters from which St. Ignatius got the news about India and the Indian mission.10 The text of these letters is preserved in four languages: Spanish, Italian, Portuguese or Latin.

The authors are some twenty-one, all except two Jesuits— the non-Jesuits were Bishop Albuquerque of Goa, and Father Peter Gonçalves, a secular priest, vicar of Cochin. The greater number of letters come from St. Francis Xavier (15), and from Father Nicholas Lancillotto (16); further from other provincial or local superiors, like H. Henriquez (7), and G. Berze (3). There are some from missionaries' not in positions of authority, for instance, John de Beira (1) or Alphonso Cyprian (2). The places in which the letters were written are in India, except for some fourteen. Nine were sent from Portugal (Lisbon or Coimbra); the Indian mission and even the Indian Province were dependent in a rather ill-defined manner on the Province of Portugal, if not juridically, at any rate through the circumstance that all missionaries for India sailed from Lisbon. Another five came from Malacca (3), and Ormuz (2). Chief among the mission places in India are Goa, which was, theoretically at least, the residence of the mission superior or provincial (14 letters), Cochin (23) and Quilon (12). Other places are San Thomé (Mylapore), Punakayal, Tuticorin, Vembar, Bassein. This list of place names shows that the early Indian mission was mainly confined to the coastal regions of the peninsula.

The places the letters report on are not only the Indian mission proper, as we understand the phrase today, but the whole Jesuit mission of the East, including India, Ethiopia, Ormuz (Persian Gulf), Malacca, the Moluccas, Japan and in spe China. In this survey, however, we shall limit our consideration to India and Ceylon. Most, not to say all, of the letters were written at the request of St. Ignatius, in obedience to his directives about sending the information he required for the proper government of the new and faraway mission. He desired that regular reports should be sent especially by superiors, and had Polanco specify the topics on which information was to be sent.11

Main Contents

Of Xavier's letters, only eleven out of the sixteen give information about India. The other five deal with the Moluccas— letters of January 20, 1548, or with his projected journey to Japan—letter of June 22, 1549, or with his apostolate in Japan and plans for China—three letters of 1552. These do not concern our present purpose. Of the Indian letters, the first two, written some five months after his arrival in India, gave information about Goa and the College there—September 20, 1542; and a third one, a month later, about the mission on the Fishery Coast—October 28, 1542. The later letters are, however, more instructive. One of January 15, 1544 reports on the Indian mission, and another of a year later, January 27,1545, on the work in Travancore. But the most informative are the three letters of January 12 and 14, 1549, in which he expresses his views on the people and their attitude to Christianity and to the priestly or Jesuit vocation. The remaining three letters are mainly requests for spiritual favors and faculties12 and for missionaries.

As is well-known, Xavier's judgment of India and the Indians was not very favorable—he was manifestly partial to the Japanese whom he considered better gifted and more open to Christianity. That is why it is imperative to compare his views on India with those of his companions. It was St. Ignatius'—and India's—good fortune that more than one voice from India was heard.

Among the more important of the letters from India are those of Nicholas Lancillotto. They draw a graphic picture of the situation in the mission, the work, methods, successes, and reverses. In many a point his views differ from Xavier's, for example, on the need of learned missionaries, on serious preparation before baptism, on the talents of Indians, on their aptitude for the priestly and Jesuit vocation. —Father Henry Henriquez, a Tamil scholar and active missionary, sends regular reports on the work done, on the methods followed, for example, on the use of catechists and his contacts with the Hindus. For them he has greater hopes and in them he sees better qualities than Xavier did. Father G. Berze, working first in Ormuz, where he converted both Mohammedans and Hindus, and then in Goa, reports as Vice-Provincial on the situation of the Mission; he hopes for indigenous vocations to the Society—which Xavier did not—and insists on work among non-Christians. Father Anthony Criminali mentions the division of opinions about the length of preparation for baptism, and also insists on the need of learning in the missionaries. These few examples suffice to show how the judgment of St. Francis Xavier on India must be completed by the views of his companions. From their collective reports, it should be possible to obtain a fairly complete and objective view of the early Jesuit mission in India such as St. Ignatius could have had. For clarity's sake we may group the information around three main points: the people among whom they work; their ministry in the colleges and the missions: methods, difficulties, results; the growth of the Society.

The Indian Mission before Xavier

To see the early Jesuit mission in India in true perspective and get a correct idea of its peculiar character as a mission— it was a mission in the Ignatian sense of the word as found in the Formula Instituti and not exactly in the sense of the modern pagan mission—it is imperative briefly to recall the situation of the Catholic mission in India at the arrival of the first Jesuits.13 The mission began some thirty years before Xavier landed in Goa. The Portuguese traders and colonists brought out priests both secular and regular, to look after their spiritual needs, and also to evangelize the people of the country. Wherever there were Portuguese settlements of importance, there were also resident priests. Though Goa was not erected as a separate diocese till 1534, and its first bishop John of Albuquerque arrived only in 1538—before that it depended on the bishop of Funchal, Madeira, and was intermittently visited by a coadjutor of that bishop—it had its resident priests from 1510 on. By 1542, Goa had a chapter with thirteen canons, six vicars, and one parish priest, and there were parishes at Cochin, Cranganore, Quilon, San Thome (Mylapore), Chalyam, Bassein and Diu. The Franciscans were settled in Goa and Cochin since 1518 and recruited new members from among the Portuguese and Eurasians in India. Dominicans had passed through before their permanent establishment of 1548. But the quality of the clergy, we are told, was not up to the mark. There was little preaching and still less work among the people of the country. There were, however, exceptions. Two zealous priests, the Franciscan Father Vincent de Lagos and the secular priest Father Didacus de Borba, even started local seminaries; at Cranganore for the children of the St. Thomas Christians, and another at Goa itself, the seminary Santa Fé, better known as St. Paul's College, of which Xavier on arrival was asked to take care.

As for the Christians, they comprised not only the Portuguese officials, merchants and soldiers but also a Eurasian Christian community, developed since the Viceroy Afonso Albuquerque (1509-15) advocated marriage with Indian women—by 1527 there were some eight hundred such Portuguese families with over a thousand children. Besides these there were indigenous Christians: convert slaves, Hindus and Mohammedans; and also the St. Thomas Christians, particularly in Cochin, Quilon and San Thomé. Some figures are available: in 1514 Cochin had six thousand Christians, Quilon over two thousand. In 1527, Cranganore had a thousand and San Thomé, eighteen hundred. But the first mass conversions took place in 1535-37, when 20,000 Paravas, of the fisher caste on the Fishery Coast, living in some thirty villages, were baptized by the vicar of Cochin and his clergy. They had had practically no preparation and were little more than nominal Christians, It was to take care of these that St. Francis Xavier had been sent to India. This was his first mission.14

Accordingly, the early Jesuit mission in India did not begin with territory being entrusted to the Society, as foreign missions generally do in our time. Jesuits were asked to come to the diocese of Goa, which at the time extended from Cape of Good Hope to Japan, to help the secular and regular priests who were already working there. The apostolate in India, therefore, was not unlike that of the first Jesuits in Europe, but with one great difference. In the East that apostolate could not but be missionary, in the strict sense of the word, namely, the propagation of the faith and the establishment of the Church inter infideles.

The Jesuit Mission Field

Xavier and his companions on landing in India came into contact first with the already existing Christian community. Shortly after his arrival Xavier reported to St. Ignatius on Christian Goa: a town wholly Christian, with a Franciscan monastery and many Friars—(in 1548 they were forty), a cathedral with canons, vicars, and a parish priest, many churches and chapels—in 1548 there were fourteen of them, besides a hospital and a college.15  He met three native clerics: two deacons and one in minor orders, from the Fishery Coast, where he was to go soon.16  Before going he was faced with the offer of the College of Goa, founded six years before by the secular clergy; it gave hope for the conversion of India but would require many Jesuits.17  In Goa most, though not all, of the Christians were Portuguese or descendants of the Portuguese. What their value as Christians and their zeal for the faith was, we do not learn at first from Xavier, though later he will incidentally remark on them. His companions complained of the bad example some gave the people of the country by their thirst for material gain and the immorality of their private lives.18  Perhaps Lancillotto and Cyprian inclined to exaggerate, nor should we generalize their statements. There were, as we know from other sources, good and zealous Christians among them. Among the Portuguese officials, too, some were favorable to religion, others a hindrance; we read of both kinds in the letters.19  This Portuguese and Luso-Indian Christian community was the first, though not the chief, field of labor for the early Jesuits.

A very different Christian community Xavier found on the Fishery Coast. The members had become Christians six years before, between 1535 and 1537,20  and had been received by the vicar of Cochin, Peter Gonçalves. No Portuguese lived among them as the country was too poor. These new Christians, having had little or no instruction, scarcely knew more than to say that they were Christians. They had no Mass since there was only one priest for the whole region, and no one to instruct them. They were ignorant but keen on learning the prayers and the faith. “I am sure,” Xavier writes, “they will make good Christians”.21  His prophecy came true: the labors of Criminali, H. Henriquez and others succeeded in founding a Christianity which still exists. Still a third class of Indian Christians Xavier was to know and his successors were to contact, the St. Thomas Christians of Malabar of the Syrian rite. All through the centuries that India was cut off from the West they had kept the faith although some errors had crept into their teaching and practice. During the lifetime of St. Ignatius, they took only a small place in the work of Jesuits in India.22

The great bulk of the population, even in the coastal regions to which the labors of Xavier and companions were practically limited, was non-Christian: Moslem and Hindu. It was on these that they desired to centre their missionary effort. The Mohammedans, though we hear of occasional conversions among them, come in mainly in the role of enemies and persecutors of the Christians—they were the enemies of the Portugese—particularly on the Fishery Coast. It is chiefly among the Hindus who live on relatively peaceful terms with the Christians that the Jesuits hope to spread the faith. And their Judgments of the Hindu population differ a good deal.

St. Francis Xavier was rather severe in judging Brahmins, Hindus and Indians in general. In his first great letter to the companions in Rome, January 5, 1544, he sternly condemns the perversion, insincerity, greed, ignorance of the Brahminic caste which is the prop of pagan religion and of idolatry. He has scarcely a good word for them; no more esteem for their intellectual than for their moral qualities. From discussions with them he was only convinced of their ignorance or bad faith. “Clearly”, Father Wicki remarks, “Xavier never knew the better type of Brahmin such as De Nobili was to know.”23  Yet Xavier, too, admits exceptions. He mentions a Brahmin who became a Christian and was a very good man; others also would accept the faith were it not for human respect.24  The Paravas, who were not Christians as yet, he not only believed fit for the faith but actually baptized thousands of them.25 Five years later, in the three letters of 1549, his opinion, if anything, has grown more severe. Indians are little cultured, he writes; both Mohammedans and pagans are ignorant, insincere, inconstant, rooted in their false religion. Because of their sins, they feel no inclination towards the faith; they oppose it and persecute those who become Christians. What a contrast with the Japanese and Chinese who are so keen on hearing about the things of God!26 Even with converts and new Christians the Fathers had much trouble in addition to the fatigue and trials that came from the hot climate, the poor food, the difficulties in learning the languages.27 Apparently, Xavier did not detect in the non-Christian Indians the natural virtues, … yet, what he did for them speaks louder than his words. We should not forget that the majority of the converts Xavier baptized during his career were Indians.

His companions, however, as already mentioned above, did judge more favorably. Two witnesses stand out among them: Father Nicholas Lancillotto, sickly but zealous priest, who worked in the Colleges of Cochin and Quilon, as rector and teacher, was superior of the Fathers in the South, but did not know the vernacular and never worked on the mission proper; and Father H. Henriquez, missionary and superior of the missionaries on the Fishery Coast, Tamil scholar, author of a grammar and several opuscula in Tamil, who lived in the midst of Indian Christians and Hindus, and knew the latter, no less than the former, from close contact.

Lancillotto, occupied in the education of the Indian youth, is in a position to judge of their aptitudes. In 1546, a year after his arrival in India, he says that the Indian boys in the College of Goa have talent, understanding and memory and so corroborates his plea for the education of the people of the country who, however illiterate, when taught show good talent, optima ingenia habent.28 Four years later, from Quilon he advocates caution in conferring holy orders on Indian clerics.29 He has not, however, changed his mind about the intellectual talents of the Indians. He pleads for missionaries, no less learned than saintly, who can master the Hindu teachings on God and the gods, on the transmigration of souls, etc.30 Their teachings and practices may be superstitious, but he admires and praises the poverty of the yogis, their frugality and chastity31 —a contrast with what he reports of the Portuguese. Again in 1552, after his experience of teaching and guiding boys in the College of Quilon, he believes that the people of this country are certainly not less gifted than Europeans, no less capable of science and learning; if the students apply themselves properly, a great Christianity will spring up.32 Yet, the same Lancillotto, in 1547, was severe on the mixed motives that prompted conversions: freedom from slavery, desire of protection against oppressors, hope of getting a hat, a shirt or a wife.33 A year later, November 1548, he seems more optimistic: some say converts come for some human favor; no matter. If adults are not perfect Christians, the younger ones will gradually grow better; spiritual and temporal help should not be stopped.34 But when later on he has to give an opinion on the customs and beliefs of the Hindus, he shows little appreciation of their ideas of God, creation, reward and punishment.35 But did he know these first or second hand? Or was he in a downcast mood, as when he wrote again that converts came only from personal interest?36

Father Henry Henriquez who knew both Indian Christians and Hindus from close observation felt more confident. In 1548 he writes that from the start he learned Tamil and was interested in the legends and myths which the Hindus narrate about their gods. He is now able to carry on discussions with them. There are, he has found out, monotheists among them. So he made friends with one particular yogi who believed in one God and instructed him (Henriquez) about things Indian; he even helped in correcting errors and evil practices of both Hindus and Christians. Unfortunately, he lacked humility. Frequently Father Henriquez discussed religion with him. With others also he discussed Christianity and Hinduism, particularly the different ways in which Hindu ministers and Catholic missionaries act towards sick people.37 A year later he wrote contentedly that he had made progress in his knowledge of Hindu legends; he hopes to write them down and refute them, both in Tamil and Portuguese, for the instruction of Hindus and Christians. He was happier still to say he had hopes for the conversion of his yogi friend; little by little he had explained to him the principal articles of our faith and now the yogi has expressed the desire to be a Christian.38 As for the Christians, he writes in January 1552, they make progress in the service of God and of their neighbor and grow ever more constant, so much so that he believes they would persevere even were the Portuguese to withdraw—a conviction Xavier did not share.39 He would like to select some boys for further instruction and training, such as show themselves desirous to serve God, but as there is no college on the Fishery Coast, he has to send them to Cochin or Goa.40 A few months later he again reports on his contacts with and preaching to learned pagans,41 and expresses great hope for the conversion of a whole tribe, 20,000 strong, that of the Kavalcas, related to the Christian Paravas.42 Father Henriquez’s sympathy for the Hindus was clear-sighted. When a yogi in Vembar spread his errors and even tried to mislead Christians, he opposed him vigorously—so his letter of 1555. He continued his discussions with Hindus and desired to write more about the pagan gods and sects for the benefit of the Christians and the Fathers; unfortunately, he cannot do so because his time is taken up by his duties as superior.43 These few gleanings from the letters of two companions of Xavier should suffice to give a somewhat balanced picture of India and the Indians; Ignatius himself must have been able to get from them a more complete and objective idea of this field of Jesuit labor.

Fr. P. De Letter, S.J.

  • 1J. M. Granero, La accion misionera y los métodos misionales de San Ignacio de Loyola, Burgos 1931.
  • 2Op. ext., 216-20.
  • 3Op. ext., 220-25. According to Fr. Wicki, cf. below n. 7, if a number of the candidates that joined in India did not persevere, this was perhaps because there was no proper novitiate or scholasticate, and also because the superiors in Goa changed so frequently (DI III, 7*).
  • 4Cf. Wicki, below n. 7, DI I 77, 507-10.
  • 5Ibid. DI II 121, 618-21; III 118, 783-88.
  • 6Synopsis Historiae Sorietatis Iesu, ed. 1950, 34.
  • 7Documenta Indica edidit Iosephus Wicki S. I. I (1540-49), II (1550-53), III (1553-57), Rome, Monumenta Historica Sorietatis Iesu, 1948, 1950,1954. Here referred to as DI I, DI II, DI III.
  • 8Epistolae S Francisci Xaverii aliaque eius scripta. Nova editio. Ediderunt Georgius Schurhammer S.I. et Iosephus Wicki S.I. I (1535-48), II (1549-52). Rome M.H.S. I., 1944 and 1945. Referred to here as EX I, EX II.
  • 9St. Ignatius did for India was briefly sketched elsewhere from the Documenta.
  • 10There is no need to add to this list some ten letters written to Europe by Xavier's first companions, but not to St. Ignatius; they add little to the information we have. As for the letters written to Portugal on which Province the Indian mission depended, they are numerous, some sixty. Though not destined for St. Ignatius, yet echos of them could and most probably did reach him. Of these letters, however, we shall make only an indirect use.
  • 11Cf. DI I, 41*; letter of St. Ignatius, January 30, 1552, DI II, p. 318, or of Polanco to Berze, August 13, 1553 and February 24, 1554, DI III 5, pp. 15f. 19, 4, p. 63; and to Mich, de Torres, November 21, 1555, DI III, p. 307.
  • 12Cf. G. Schurhammer, “Facultates et gratiae spirituales S Francisco Xaverio pro India Orientali concessae”, in Studia Missionalia 3 (1947) 131-53.
  • 13Cf. J. Wicki, DI I, 18*-20*, and of the same "The Indian Mission before Xavier", in the Clergy Monthly 16 (1952) 168-75.
  • 14Cf. Wicki, DI I, 21*, EX I, 80, 124.
  • 15EX I 15, 5, pp. 132f.
  • 16Cf. Lancillotto in DI II 34, 4, on slaves and slave trade, p. 128; ib. 8, on sins of impurity with slave girls, pp. 130f.; and DI III 41, 5, Portuguese in India are an obstacle to conversions, pp. 231f.; Cyprian, DI lil 61, 1, the Portuguese lead bad lives and are despised by the people of the country, pp. 298f.
  • 17DI, I, p. III.
  • 18Cf. n. 16.
  • 19Cf. a favorable report by Fr. H. Henriquez DI II 64, 18, p. 305; and an unfavorable one by the same DI III 73, 10, pp. 417f.
  • 20Cf. G. Schurhammer, “Die Bekehrung der Paraver (1535-37)”, in Archivum Historicum Societatis Iesu 4 (1935) 201-33. 
  • 21EX I 19, 2, pp. 147f.
  • 22We find a mention of the St. Thomas Christians in letters of St. Francis Xavier v.g. EX II 70, 13-14, pp. 14f.: they are in 60 places; in 1550 one estimate puts their number at 40,000; another adds 40 to 50,000; also his companions mention them, v.g. Ant. de Hercdia DI II 98, 9, pp. 412f; 114, 2-3, pp. 555f.
  • 23EX II 20, 10-13, pp. 170-74; Wicki, ibid. p. 170 footnote 31.
  • 24Ep. cit. pp. 171, 173.
  • 25Cf. G. Schurhammer, “Die Taufe des hi. Franz Xaver”, in Studia Missonalia 7 (1953), 33-75: out of 28,200 baptisms, some 20,000 were given in India: some 1,000 1n Portuguese settlements, 8,000 on the Fishery Coast, 11,000 in Travancore.
  • 26EX II 70, 1, 7, pp. 5, 9f; 71, 1, 3, 7, pp. 22, 23, 24.
  • 27EX II 71, If., pp. 22f.
  • 28DI I 15, 15 and 17, pp. 145.
  • 29DI II 34, 4, p. 127.
  • 30Ibid. 5, pp. 127f.
  • 31Ibid. p. 128.
  • 32DI II 90, 4, pp. 280f.
  • 33DI I 24, 2, pp. 182f.
  • 34DI I 52, 5, p. 343T
  • 35DI III 47, 3-4, pp. 230f. 
  • 36Ibid. p. 231.
  • 37DI I 45, 16, 19-21, 23, pp. 288, 291-93, 295.
  • 38DI I 85, 11, 14, pp. 582, 584f.
  • 39DI II 64, 4, p. 301; cf. EX II 70, 6, p. 8.
  • 40DI II 64, 5, pp. 301f.; 94, 11, p. 398.
  • 41DI II 94, 8, p. 396; cf. 64, 17, pp. 305f. 
  • 42DI II 94, 8-10, pp. 397f.
  • 43DI III 73, 23-24, pp. 421f.