Controversy Intensifies Over Alleged Racism of India’s St. Francis Xavier
India’s revered Catholic saint, Francis Xavier, has become the subject of bitter debate among historians over whether he was racist and a male chauvinist.
The debate intensified after the country marked the 442nd anniversary of his death on Dec. 3 with perhaps the last public exposure of his remains in Goa, drawing devout Roman Catholics from all over the world.
The controversy surrounding St. Francis Xavier arouses strongest passions in the Christian stronghold of Goa, the former Portuguese enclave that India took over in 1961.
“His appreciation of Indians, whom he called Negroes, was negative, and he became enthusiastic in his mission to Asia only after discovering the ‘white people’ of Japan and China,” said Teotonio de Souza, the former head of the Xavier Center of Historical Research.
De Souza, who recently left the Jesuit order that Francis Xavier helped found, said the saint’s attitude toward Indians was probably influenced by the harsh Portuguese rule over Goa.
Another prominent Goan Roman Catholic historian, Lucio da Viega Coutinho, deplored the wide publicity given to Francis Xavier over the past four centuries, with the well-preserved body of the saint going on public display once every 10 years.
“One encounters no expression of love or appreciation for the Goan people in the writings of St. Francis. Goans do not seem to have particularly touched the chords of his otherwise extremely sensitive and affectionate heart,” Coutinho said.
The controversy has forced the church to defend the saint.
“The beliefs and actions of people of earlier ages cannot be judged by the principles of a later age,” Cardinal Simon Pimenta, one of India’s top Roman Catholic clergymen, said when he launched ceremonies for the public display of the body.
The debate has not stopped 10,000 Roman Catholics from filing past the glass coffin of St. Francis Xavier daily since Nov. 21, stopping to gaze reverently at his remains.
Francis Xavier has been adopted by the state of Goa as its patron saint, the only state in largely Hindu India to have one.
Even Francis Xavier’s attitude toward women has not escaped censure.
“He regarded them as inconstant and volatile and not to be trusted by his colleagues,” de Souza said.
De Souza attributes the charge of misogyny to the saint’s youth, when a close friend died of venereal disease.
Born in Navarre, Spain, in the 16th Century, Francis Xavier spent 10 years as a missionary in India and the Far East, converting hundreds among the fisherfolk of India’s southern coast.
He spent a total of only eight months in Goa. He was canonized a saint in 1622 because of miracles attributed to him and then because his body did not decompose after his death in 1552.
The public display of his remains once each decade dates to 1752, when the first viewing was held to refute rumors that the Jesuits had replaced the corpse with that of a local nobleman.