Dear Francis Xavier,
I’d like to start this letter with a bit of a confession. Although I selected ‘Francis’ as my confirmation name, I did not exactly have you in mind when I chose it. Back then, I was drawn to the radical simplicity of Saint Francis of Assisi – I still am, although I have found, as he did, that it doesn’t always suit everyone.
It’s been almost a decade since my confirmation, but in that time, I’ve learnt about a few other Saint Francises, and come to admire them all. There’s Francis de Sales – the patron saint of writers, who I obviously felt an immediate affinity to. Also, I learned about your fellow Jesuit, Francis Borgia, who was a Spanish noble and the white sheep of a family who used the Catholic Church as a means to satisfy their own lusts and greed.
And then of course, there is you.
While all these saints make me proud to carry your name, I think I have come to realize that it is you to whom I owe the greatest debt of gratitude. If you had never set out from your native Spain to come to India and South-East Asia, and to Malacca specifically, the Faith may not have come to Singapore when it did, and I may not be a Catholic today. And given how stubborn and pig-headed I can be, I doubt I would have come to conversion had I not been born into the Faith. And I’m sure I’m not alone among the Catholics in my country who feel this way – there is a reason why one of your relics lies in the altar of our beautiful Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, next to those of Saint Laurent Imbert, who may have celebrated the first mass on our little island.
There are many questions that I would have liked to ask you. Where did you find your missionary zeal? What kept you going from country to country when facing so many difficulties, be it bureaucracy, abuses, the bad example set by European sailors, and even banishment by the local authorities of the countries you went to? Were you ever disillusioned? If so, how did you cope?
These questions are pertinent to me as even today, there is so much work to be done in the vineyards of the Lord. Here in Singapore, where the Church is (more or less) established, there are still many people who need us to be Christ to them. And we have new challenges too – modernism, relativism, and the dark underside of our technological advances have left many of us isolated and closed off from one another. And often in ministry, I find myself at a loss, taking two steps backward for every step I take. When I think of you and your missions, I often find myself wondering at your courage and determination to press on despite all odds. God knows I’ve reacted more than once by withdrawing into my own anxiety and disillusionment.
Did you know that a 20th-century writer named Gilbert Keith Chesterton wrote a poem about you in 1982, when he was 18 years old? But what am I saying, you’ve probably met him up there for all I know. But I think he really captured how hard it must have been for you to toil so hard and not always see your labours bear fruit. I especially like these few lines:
God only knows, man failing in his choice,
How far apparent failure may succeed,
God only knows what echo of His voice
Lives in the cant of many a fallen creed,
I think it is true in the end that it is not for us to judge the fruit of our labours, but rather, for God to do so. And to continue to trust that God can use even what seems like our failures to build His Kingdom. Perhaps that knowledge can give us strength to continue to strive for Him no matter how hard the going gets.
So once again, thank you. Not just for the invaluable gift of Faith, but for setting for your spiritual children here in Asia an example of courage and tenacity. Pray for us, and may God grant us at least a fraction of your zeal in spreading His Word.
This then we say: let all things further rest
And this brave life, with many thousands more,
Be gathered up in the eternal’s breast
In that dim past his Love is bending o’er:
Healing all shattered hopes and failure sore:
Since he had bravely looked on death and pain
For what he chose to worship and adore,
Cast boldly down his life for loss or gain
In the eternal lottery: not to be in vain.
© 2017 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng