History of the Church: Early Modern Times - Notre Dame

Missionary Work in the Old World

The work of preaching to heathen peoples seems to have been simultaneous with the discovery of the lands in which they dwelt. Every flotilla had its chaplains, who, as soon as they found themselves in presence of an unbelieving race, strove to win it to the true faith. Franciscans and Dominicans entered the Canary Isles with the first explorers (1477).

I. Africa

The early records of missionary labour in Africa are scanty, but from about fifty years later details of the preaching of the Gospel became fairly numerous. It would seem that very few attempts were made to reach the interior; indeed, even on the coast settlements, the missionaries everywhere had to contend with the Moslem Power which held the great continent enthralled. There is nowhere that tide of conversions which cheered the labourers in other fields, and a general character of unfruitfulness marks the beginning of each settlement. The Congo mission is an example. Under the first Dominicans (1485) and Franciscans (1490) conversions were numerous, but the fervour of pastors and people was not sustained. Two of the Jesuits sent out in 1547 had to be recalled, and the Mohammedans induced the sovereign of the west coast to expel those who replaced them. These latter were devoted men who endeavoured to find a new field on the east coast. At Monomotapa, between the Limpopo and Zambesi, Father Silveria converted a large number of chieftains, with their king. The Mohammedans worked on this monarch's fears, and he allowed the Jesuits and fifty of the neophytes to be massacred (1561). But the Zambesi basin became later a more fruitful soil. By 1624 the Society had several residences where the Fathers devoted themselves to the spiritual needs of the Portuguese, while others preached to the native population. Later on, the Congo mission also had its bright days. In Angola, and on the Guinea coast, the same story is repeated.

It is hardly astonishing that missionary labour should have been unproductive in East Africa, for it was there that one of the most repulsive features of Pagan and Mohammedan society was reproduced by Christians and even by Catholics. The Church had abolished slavery by centuries of wise and gentle legislation, but the greed of the fifteenth-century explorers and traders set it up anew, and Protestant England developed it to a frightful extent. The vile traffic was set on foot, it is said, by an exchange of black slaves for captured Moslems made during the Portuguese wars with the Moors (1442). At once the value of negro labour and the helplessness of the savage were recognized, and the initiative was given. Very early after the conquest of South America, negroes were imported thither by the Portuguese. Las Casas, hoping to save the poor Indians from a miserable fate, suggested that negroes would be more profitable as labourers. The hint was only too well acted on, and thousands were imported yearly. Charles V. chartered a trading company in 1517, and determined the number to be sent to the West Indies at four thousand slaves a year. This limit was set at the entreaty of Las Casas, who bitterly repented the result of his suggestion.

English traders developed the hideous traffic to an alarming extent. Hawkins seized, by force or stratagem, on the helpless inhabitants of the Guinea coast, and sold them in Hispaniola (1562). Elizabeth appointed Hawkins commander of a squadron of slavers two years later. Under James I. and Charles I. two companies were chartered for the same trade. Charles II. incorporated two more, the last bearing the title of the Royal African Trading Company. Ivory was the ostensible, but slaves the real, object of traffic. About 1688 the British monopoly was over, yet, though Dutch and Spaniards carried large numbers, in 1771 British vessels alone transported close on fifty thousand slaves to the West Indies. England has the inglorious distinction of inaugurating a yet more infamous slavery, to be mentioned later.

While the faith was being introduced among the savage tribes, the schismatic Christians were not forgotten. The Prester John of Abyssinia , in the middle of the sixteenth century, petitioned Portugal to send Catholic priests to minister to his subjects. Jesuits were commissioned by the Pope with the dangerous task, but, when their envoy arrived, the face of things had changed. The schismatics had worked on the fears of the sovereign, telling him that, by admitting Portuguese priests, he was preparing the way for the subjugation of his kingdom, and the Jesuit envoy was sent back as he came. Oviedo, one of the number destined for the mission, could not brook the thought of abandoning the field committed to his care, and alone he faced the monarch (1557). For two years he had defended the faith in conferences with schismatics and Mussulmans, when a new sovereign began a cruel persecution of his Christian subjects. Fear of the Portuguese alone prevented the Abyssinians from giving Oviedo the martyr's crown, but he was exiled into the depths of the Sahara, where, during long years, he preached to and converted the blacks, enduring extremes of poverty and suffering. After his death, in 1577, the Jesuits succeeded in penetrating into Abyssinia, where a flourishing mission sprang up, and many schismatics were reconciled with the Church.

A similar attempt was made to bring back the Egyptian Copts to the unity of the faith. In 1560 the Patriarch of Alexandria begged the Holy Father to send missionaries to them. Paul IV. sent two Jesuits, who began by engaging the learned Egyptians in theological arguments. These men, feeling that victory would be with their adversaries, excited the populace and the Jews against them, and the papal nuncios had to flee for their lives, taking with them, as the only fruits of their attempt, some Christians whom they had redeemed from captivity.

II. Asia

St. Francis Xavier.


Meanwhile Asia was beholding wonders of conversions. St. Francis Xavier had carried the faith into the Indies as early as 1542, and for seven years he gathered into the Church tribe after tribe of the poor outcasts of Southern India. The Fishery Coast, Travancore, and Meliopore, were the scenes of his early triumphs. Then his insatiable zeal carried him to Malacca, Amboyna, the Moluccas, and the island he calls of the Moro. Before he started for Japan, in 1549, he had already a numerous band of zealous workers around him, for whose well-being this man, greedy of suffering for himself, showed the most tender solicitude.

Japan opened its doors to the apostle, but the clever intellectual people were not so easily converted as the simple pariahs of India. Long and learned discussions with the Bonzes (Buddhist priests of Japan) were necessary before they would yield to the preaching of Xavier. His austerity of life, his commanding eloquence, his miracles, and an irresistible charm of manner, won him many converts; but the pride of the Bonzes and the dissolute habits of the people, were, at times, insurmountable obstacles. He returned to Goa for a few months in 1552 to revisit his converts, whom he found in a flourishing state. He then determined to evangelize China, but his projects were long thwarted by the Governor of Malacca. At last Xavier started, and after a tempestuous voyage reached Sancian, and was making his preparations for landing in that vast country never yet opened to Europeans when he was struck down by fever. He died at the age of forty-six, whitened by toil and consumed by zeal. One unanimous cry of mingled grief and praise arose from every nation he had evangelized, and his sanctity was recognized far and wide. If ever a saint was canonized by the voice of the people, it was St. Francis Xavier. His labours in India were continued by his brethren in religion, but no great development took place until, in 1606, Robert De Nobili came to labour among them. The first Jesuits had worked exclusively for the lowest classes: they were thus cut off from all intercourse with any of the higher castes. The new-comer resolved to win the Brahmins to the faith, and for this end he isolated himself from his brethren, spent years in solitary penance and study, and, in fact, went through the training which the Hindu priesthood supposes. At length he began to discuss theological topics with the Brahmins; then he opened a school which was largely attended by the priestly caste. De Nobili was blamed for adopting the customs and clothing of the Hindus, and accused to Pope Gregory XV. A Dominican of Goa undertook his defence, and the Jesuit was allowed to continue his self-denying life and labours. He is said to have won a hundred thousand Brahmins to the faith. When blind and worn out with age, he still laboured for his neophytes, composing, in various Hindu dialects, books to facilitate the study of these languages to future missionaries. Great numbers of devoted men followed in the footsteps of Xavier and Nobili, and in spite of the Dutch, whose action was calculated to wreck the missions in the Indies, the faith has never been wholly extirpated from among the native tribes.

Ceylon was won to the faith by Franciscans and Oratorians as early as 1546; Cochin China by Father De Rhodes, S.J., a hundred years later. After labouring on the missions for thirty-nine years, this intrepid man was exiled from Cochin China. He then went to Rome to beg for help towards further labours. Innocent X. gave him leave to recruit associates, and by his eloquent pleadings he gathered a large band. Monsieut Olier, the founder of St. Sulpice, begged to be allowed to join him, but De Rhodes, seeing the mighty work he was doing for the French clergy, refused to accept him. The troop of missionaries started for the East, the aged De Rhodes directing his own steps towards Persia, where he laboured till his death in 1660.

The work of St. Francis Xavier in japan was continued by his religious brethren with equal zeal. During the twelfth century Japan had developed a species of feudal system, which has only given way to a constitutional government in our own days. The numerous petty sovereigns were but nominally subject to the emperor, and feudal strife, with its sudden changes of fortune and dynasty, continued with unabated fury up to the beginning of the seventeenth century. This unsettled state of things naturally reacted on the work of the missions. At first kingdom after kingdom was won to the faith, and it seemed at one moment as though the whole people would enter the true fold, so rapid was the process of conversion. While things were in this prosperous way, a sudden change of government was the means of wrecking the Church in Japan for a time. The Emperor Nobununga, who had protected the Christians, was killed in a popular rising. The Christians supported the claims of the son of the late emperor, but their party was not strong enough to hold its own, and the prince fled. One of the victorious lieutenants caused himself to be proclaimed, taking the title of Taicosama. The Christian party submitted to prevent a civil war, and for some years the new emperor favoured them throughout his dominion. But two young girls having refused to be numbered among his consorts, the Taicosama, urged on by Bonzes, began a persecution. Ucondono, the leading Catholic, made a magnificent confession of faith, and was exiled with his whole family. A feudal sovereign apostatized and shed the first Christian blood to convince the Taicosama of his fidelity. The severity exercised on the Christians had the contrary effect to that anticipated—multitudes hastened to give in their submission to the Church. The persecution was interrupted for a time by the return from Rome of an embassy which the Jesuits had sent thither. The envoys, four young Japanese, gave such enthusiastic reports of their reception, and of the wealth and strength of the Western world, that the Taicosama was appeased, especially as the accounts were accompanied by magnificent gifts from Europe.

About this time the tale was spread that Western' monarchs were accustomed to send missionaries to prepare the way for armies, and this fabrication destroyed a flourishing Church. A second persecution was set on foot, and several Jesuits and Franciscans were put to death. As at the first, outburst of persecution, new crowds entered the Church. There was a short lull in the storm when Cubosama became emperor, but he was worked upon by Spaniards, English, and Dutch to regard the Portuguese Jesuits as endeavouring to secure commercial monopoly for their sovereign. The most terrible persecution yet experienced began, and the fervour of the Christians went to an extraordinary length. They formed a Confraternity of Martyrdoms, they added their own names to the lists of the proscribed, and signed a resolution in their blood that the Jesuits should not be exiled. This document fell into the hands of the governors, and all but twenty-six Jesuits were immediately deported. Those who remained lay hidden away in forests and caverns and awaited better days, while their flocks showed heroic courage. An imprudent attempt of other missionaries to work openly in favour of Catholicism provoked the fury of yet another emperor, and again a terrific storm was let loose on the Christians. No less than twenty thousand five hundred and seventy persons are said to have been put to death, yet the neophytes again multiplied daily. The most frightful tortures were employed, but in vain. The Jesuits were given up to incredible sufferings. The ardour of persecution was constantly fanned by English and Dutch traders, who, desirous of transferring the rich commerce of Japan from the Portuguese to their own marts, constantly excited the sovereign against the Catholics. By 1634 all the missionaries had been killed, only one European remained, the Jesuit Ferreyra, and he had apostatized. The population was decimated, and it seemed as though Catholicism had been stamped out of the soil. No merchant could enter a Japanese port save by trampling on a crucifix. The Jesuits, with characteristic devotedness, sent men to try to win back their apostate brother. They were martyred, but their efforts were not lost. At eighty years of age Ferreyra recanted, and died a martyr—the last of the Jesuits (1652) —and the story of Catholicism in Japan was interrupted for two hundred years.

China, the land which had excited the zeal of St. Francis Xavier, was only opened to the influence of Christianity by a long patience. Every early attempt had met with signal failure, and the Jesuits, taught by experience, began to discover that zeal alone is not enough to insure success. Valignani, a Jesuit who was the very soul of the Eastern mission, founded a special novitiate where future missionaries could study the manners and spirit of the Chinese. Ricci, an eminent pupil from this school and a brilliant mathematician, presented himself to the Chinese as teacher of astronomy, geography, and mathematics (1583). His first endeavours were to win the higher classes, as only through them could the lower be reached. When discussing problems in science, he inculcated the first ideas of truth. He led his hearers gradually from truth to morality—from morality to God. His inventions won him an introduction to the court of Pekin, and his prestige was secured. After seventeen years of patient toil the Jesuit could work openly as a missionary. The nobles and the learned were converted in large numbers. The people begged that the Word of God might be announced to them. But the upper classes, not yet imbued with the spirit of a Gospel which was to be announced to poor as well as to rich, opposed themselves strenuously to such an innovation. Ricci, however, overcame all obstacles. He was soon able to open a novitiate at Pekin, and to admit Chinese youths among the aspirants. Hardly anywhere else had it been allowed, or even possible, so soon to commence to form a native clergy, but with the intelligent and docile Chinese the experiment was successful. Father Ricci died in 161o, and Father Schall succeeded him at the head of the Jesuit mission in China. Just then broke out a most lamentable dispute which imperilled the very existence of the Chinese missions. After long examination the Jesuits had felt convinced that the reverence given to Confucius and other illustrious Chinese of bygone days was merely ceremonial, and contained no idolatry, therefore they did not prohibit it. On the other hand, they made a very restricted use of the crucifix, which the Chinese mind could not appreciate. When in 1633 Dominican and Franciscan missionaries arrived to aid with the work, they were immediately struck by what appeared to them a dangerous innovation, and they denounced the action of the Jesuits to headquarters. While the question was being examined in Rome, the Chinese also got hold of the matter in dispute, and so highly incensed were they at the insult offered to their ancestors that they exiled the newly-arrived missionaries, together with several Jesuits. It was just at this time that a revolution occurred by which the Chinese dynasty was overthrown, and a Tartar prince from Manchuria was placed on the throne (1644). He was favourable to the Christians, but on his death the regents who governed during the minority of the succeeding emperor, instigated by the Buddhist priests and Mohammedan authorities, gathered together all the priests and other religious in China and shut them up in prison. While confined together, the Dominicans and Jesuits discussed the Chinese customs, and the former attested by a formal document that the Jesuits had acted prudently in the course they had taken with regard to the honour given to Confucius, and that they had not concealed the Mystery of the Cross as had been supposed. The prisoners were liberated when the young emperor attained his majority, but Father Schall soon succumbed to the sufferings he had undergone. Father Verbiest succeeded him in command of the Jesuit missions, and through his great influence with the emperor, there was almost entire liberty for the development of the faith. Numerous converts were received, and for a few years the state of the Church in China was highly satisfactory.

The discussion on "Chinese Customs," however, came up again, to the detriment of the missions. It was impossible for the Chinese to have confidence in teachers who appeared at variance among themselves. At length, in 1693, the customs were condemned by the Holy See, and the Jesuits immediately submitted. Not so their flocks, and the prohibition had to be confirmed in 1715 and 1742. When the Chinese began to refuse the public signs of veneration to ancestors, which before they had not scrupled to use, a general outcry arose, which deepened into a persecution in 1722. For a hundred years Chinese Christians of every rank suffered with heroic courage—many enduring martyrdom, the horrors of which equaled the worst inflictions of Roman tyrants. But the faith has never been stamped out.

The Philippines and neighbouring islands were converted by Spanish Augustinians, Dominicans, and Franciscans. As early as 1579 there was a bishop at Manila, and in a very short space of time the native population was converted. After a brief, but severe, persecution, during which a very large number were martyred, there was a steady development of Christianity, though a fairly large proportion of the people are still Mohammedans.

A very early reunion of Arabic schismatics with the Holy See occurred in 1533, when a Nestorian bishop submitted to papal authority, and was named Patriarch of Chaldea. A large number of Nestorians came over a little later: they are known as Chaldeans by those who still retain heretical tenets. In 1577 the Malabar Christians, or Christians of St. Thomas, also a Nestorian body, were received back into the unity of the Church.

In 1609 Henry IV. of France obtained from the Sultan permission for the Jesuits to settle in the Levant. Franciscans joined them in 1625. In a few years Greece, Syria, Persia, and Armenia, had a numerous staff of missionaries, and many conversions followed. The Maronites of the Lebanon were at this time won back to the faith.