Nicholás Bobadilla SJ, one of Ignatius’ First Companions, at home on a horse, while St Francis Xavier dons the silk.
A street in Cameroon’s largest city, Douala, has just been named after a Jesuit priest. Le Rue Père de Rosny pays tribute to the French Jesuit Eric de Rosny,, who spent 45 years in Camerooon. In 1981, he published Les Yeux de ma Chèvre (The Eyes of my Goat), a work that chronicled his five-year long initiation into ethnic Douala culture by a ngagna (a sorcerer-healer). Fr de Rosny opted to undergo the initiation after realising ‘something’ was eluding him in his contact with the children (even those who were baptised) who were attending the boarding school where he taught English. He had concluded that they, and more so their parents, were affected by what he called a ‘culture of origin’ gap. In 1970, with the permission of his superiors, he began an ‘eye-opening’ initiation that helped him see what ordinary eyes cannot see and become familiar with a world formerly closed to him. As well as entering the culture more deeply, it resulted in him becoming a noted healer of the sick.
Some might raise their eyebrows at crossing boundaries in such a way. But Jesuits have long been known to be adaptive and adopt ways that would allow them to enter another culture for the sake of the mission. Today we might call it enculturation. In Jesuit parlance, such a flexibility is known as accommodation. There is a long-standing Jesuit rule-of-thumb given us by Ignatius, tantum quantum – we are to use things in so far as they lead us to our last end, and be rid of them in so far as they hinder us in the pursuit of the end for which we were created.
There are a host of examples of such adaptation for mission in the Society’s history. I admire the freedom and initiative of the 16th century Jesuit missionaries in Brazil. They surprised their local bishop in their approach to hearing confessions. Often, they did not know the language of the penitent, so their practical solution was to train boys as interpreters. The penitent told his sins to the boy, who relayed them to the priest, and then related what the Jesuit said back to the penitent. The Jesuits protested that it worked well and the hierarchy in Rome eventually voiced no objections provided the secrecy of what was confessed was carefully guarded. The bishop approved the use of an interpreter, but insisted that he be ‘an upright and prudent man’. He might have been shocked to learn that the Jesuits often employed Brazilian women for the task. In 1552, one of the Jesuits writing home to his superiors commended one of his interpreters:
“I think she is a better confessor than I am!”
One of the earliest expressions of this in mission was Francis Xavier when he set off for the Far East. At the point of his departure, Xavier was steeped in a Eurocentric Catholic worldview. Arriving at Goa in India, he found himself at the hub of trade routes and a mixing pot of cultures, ethnic groups and religious traditions. He began teaching in the diocesan school there, St Paul’s. His early letters home betray a zealous intolerance of any ‘pagan’ practices among his students and their families. But by the time he had ventured further east, we learn of him seriously engaging in what we would today call inter-religious dialogue with Hindus and Buddhists. He was at first rather uncompromising, but by the time he reached Japan, he was searching for common ground. Were there truths and beliefs, universal positions, which were shared by different faith traditions?
It was in Japan, too, that he soon discovered something new about accommodation. Xavier was finding his efforts there hampered in the most unexpected ways. Chief among these was the ridicule he and his companions endured because of the way they were dressed. The standard Jesuit garb was a black cloth cassock. The simple garment reflected the Jesuit commitment to poverty and those who wore it were treated with dignity in Europe. In Japan they were laughed at.
At first, the mockery bothered Francis but little. After all, he was more than prepared to suffer for Christ. Yet there was something different about the way the Japanese treated them. Then he realized what had seemed strange: it was not just the rich or powerful who ridiculed the Jesuits, but the poor as well. Peasants spat on them and children threw rocks, all the while mocking them for their destitute appearance. After over a year in the country, Xavier came to understand that rich and poor alike despised a person who did not dress well. In fact, the Japanese took one look at the Jesuits and believed that they were so poor, that they had fled Europe to escape their shame!
What was he to do? The Jesuit cassock was more than just clothing—it represented a Jesuit’s vow of commitment to their Society and their Lord. Yet Francis Xavier cared about one thing: bringing Christ to Japan. And if his clothing style hindered that goal, then he would remove the obstacle from his path. Since the Buddhist monks were respected in Japan — much like the Jesuits were in Europe — Xavier resolved that he and his companions would dress at least as well as they.
So the Jesuits began wearing the orange silk robes of Buddhist priests. Some Jesuits would even shave their heads in the Buddhist manner, all to demonstrate that these European priests were worthy of respect. Xavier was willing to go to almost any length to adapt to Japanese culture: he abstained from eating meat, began learning how to speak graceful Japanese, and even bathed semi-regularly (a practice viewed with suspicion in 16th century Europe). Such a policy of accommodation to Japanese culture was scandalous among many in the Jesuit order who viewed such behavior as corrupt, a compromise with worldly living. After all, what other explanation could one have for wearing silk? But Xavier’s actions did more than solve his own problems; they laid the foundation for decades of missionary work in Japan. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese entered the Church, all because one man was willing to trade coarse cloth for silk.
People sometimes have the wrong impression about Jesuits or their modus operandi. We are often portrayed as ‘the Pope’s marines’, the stormtroopers whose vow of obedience is unwavering, whose mindset is programmed by years of formation, steely in inflexibility. But if we turn to Ignatius’ Constitutions, something quite different jumps off the pages. For example, when Ignatius legislates on the vow of poverty, among many details, he writes:
“To proceed here, too, in a manner conformed to what poverty requires, in the houses of the Society ordinarily no mount (ie, a horse) will be kept for any member of the Society itself, either superior or subject”.
Quite clear – no horse for the Rector. But then he immediately goes on to say:
“Unless it should be because of constant infirmities or of urgent necessities in regard to public business, especially in large towns. For the more account should be taken of the universal good”.
Let the local man decide, he is saying. Look for the greater good. The principle of subsidiarity, devolution. So, tantum quantum, I can have my horse! An ideal is proposed, but it is not an absolute. Flexibility, freedom and adaptability. The encouraging phrase to ‘adapt to times, places and circumstances’ is a leitmotif that runs through so much of Ignatius’ writings. It is not a mere whim or ‘anything goes’ attitude, but a discerned flexibility for mission, an ability to discern the means from the end. Ignatius often used a phrase, common in the Spanish of the times, which I am sure you have heard me use from time to time: “Go in by the other person’s door and lead them out your own”. In other words, know where you want to go – the end – and be flexible and accommodating in the means to get there. It is a wonderful maxim for working with the young. Engage with their interests, their passions, their culture, bend a bit, identify the value or the virtue you wish to explore and to cultivate and lead them to, then bring them along.
Those who work closely with Jesuits should observe this approach in our pastoral care, in our liturgies, in our manner dealing with moral dilemmas. This freedom has been labeled licence by some over the years. We are engaging in relativism, they charge. We blow this way then that, according to fashionable winds. Or they say that we never see reality objectively in black and white, but always slide too comfortably into the grey. Insubordination and disrespect. Cultural relativism. Not faithful to the constant teaching and practice of the Church and so on. But it is not that at all. It is a means to a greater end. Options weighed up in prayer and reflection; gleaning the possibilities for the underlying truths and values; searching for God’s will in this particular context. Joining faith and reason. Always a discerned position. Ever seeking the greater good.
And now I have to feed the horse …