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 Set All Afire!

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Louise Bernadette
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PostSubject: Set All Afire!   Tue Apr 08, 2008 7:02 pm

Newsletter of the District of Asia
Jul - Dec 2003


Set All Afire!

St Francis Xavier And the Fishery Coast of India
By Louis de Wohl

Note: This life of St Francis Xavier, Set All Afire!, written in a novel form in 1953 is completely based on historical documents. We give here some of the extracts concerning the arrival of Catholicism in South India in the years 1542-1545.
St Francis spent these three years evangelizing, first in the area of Goa, on the West coast, then in the South-Eastern tip of India, in Tamil Nadu (where most of the SSPX apostolate is taking place since 1986). The following extract recalls St Francis' first visit to the Fishery Coast.


A ship, a small merchantman, built at Goa, and serving the coastal route. The pepper ship, they called it, because it brought pepper from Cochin to Goa, pepper, that most precious article. The whole of the Portuguese Empire of the Indies was built on pepper. There were other spices, of course, and there was silk from the faraway, unapproachable land called China—unapproachable because every foreigner trying to land there was instantly killed, according to the standing orders of the Emperor. But pepper was the main thing.

Francis and his three Tamil students were the only passengers. He almost wept as Goa vanished in the mists of the morning sun. Somehow the rumor of his departure had got around and a huge crowd had come to see him off, Father Almeida and Father Campo and other priests, Violante Ferreira with her nice young daughter, both in tears, Father Diogo de Borba of course, with all his students, and hundreds and hundreds of others; they upset the entire traffic near the port. And as the ship left, they had sung the Credo, rhymed as he had taught it to the children. How they loved singing, these joyful people. They sang when they plowed their fields, sang when they worked on the wharves. And there were the children, his children, tossing hibiscus flowers at the ship, bobbing up and down ....

Leaving them was a kind of dying. And now started the voyage to purgatory.

Father de Borba had told him a good deal about the Paravas, and no one could have given him better information. Eight years ago Father de Borba had been there himself, in the course of the War of the Ear.

Every girl child on the Pearl Fisher Coast had the lobes of her tiny ears pierced. Little leaden weights were inserted into the ears and these weights were gradually increased, till at last they were large enough for the enormous earrings that would be put in on the day of the girl's marriage. They were the sign of the married state and a Parava woman's pride and badge of rank and dignity.

An uncouth, greedy Moslem trader—one of the many who cheated the poor pearl fishers out of their goods, won by so much effort and under constant danger from sharks and stingrays—tore such a ring off the ear of a young Parava woman, tearing her earlobe at the same time. Outraged, the Paravas killed him and everyone of his kind they could lay their hands on. Then came the armed feluccas to burn down the Parava villages and the pearl fishers asked for Portuguese protection.

And Dom Martini de Sousa, Gran Capitan of the Seas, arrived with his fleet. Francis had heard the story from Marcello, but Father de Borba had a few things to add. He and a few Franciscans had gone ashore with the troops, and the priests—numbering no more than six— had baptized twenty thousand natives. They tried to instruct them, too, but the fleet had to go on and priests were needed on board ....

Since then the Paravas had had to be left to themselves, except for a few priests going over at Easter, from Cochin.

And now it was eight years since the War of the Ear.

The little ship, the pepper ship, was careful not to sail too far out into the dangerous waters of the Indian Ocean. Hugging the coast, it stopped for a day at Mangalore, for two days at Calicut, for another two at Cochin. Then it sailed along the Travancore Coast and round Cape Comorin to Manapad.

There Francis and his three students went ashore.

"Flat country", said Coelho, the oldest of the students, and the only one who had received major Orders and was a deacon. "Good for us, because there won't be so many wild animals. Bad—because there is little shade." He opened his parasol.
They found a little grotto, where Francis said Mass.

Walking towards Manapar (at the very tip of India)

Far away, to the north, a few catamarans stood out in the ocean.

"Pearl fisher boats", explained Coelho. "One of the men is diving now. Can you see, Father?"

"Yes—he's holding something in his mouth, something shimmery….”

"His knife. For sharks."

Francis made his bundle ready and swung it over his shoulder. "You said you know the way to Tuticorin", he said.

"I know it, Father. I—I hope I do."


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PostSubject: Re: Set All Afire!   Wed Apr 09, 2008 4:03 am

Rice paddies. A few laborers working in a millet field, with a number of completely naked boys jumping around and throwing stones at something, Francis could not see what it was.

"They're chasing parrots away", explained Coelho.

Coconut palms and banyan trees and limes and mangoes. With those and the fish they can get from the ocean, at least they have enough to eat, thought Francis. Of course, fish had to be eaten at once; they putrefied at almost the moment they were taken from the water.
A cow appeared suddenly, seemingly from nowhere, and the workers in the field turned towards her and bowed their heads.

"They hope for the droppings", said Coelho. "It is a sacred animal, you know, and the droppings are a certain cure for a great many diseases, when mixed with the food of a man. That is what Hindus believe", he added hastily, as he saw Francis look at him with horror.

"But these people are supposed to be Christians!"

"Some of them, yes, Father. Many of them. Not all. And there is no priest. Things get mixed up..."

" .. with the dung of cows", said Francis grimly.

He had to restrain himself from walking up to the men and tackling them then and there. It would have been foolish. The thing to do was to go to the heart of the country and to work from there towards the periphery. That was what Father Ignatius would do, he thought.

They closed their parasols, as they entered a forest—if the maze of trees of all kinds and sizes, of high grass and strange plants could be called a forest.

"Look out for snakes, Father", warned Coelho. "Most of them will not attack—except when they believe that they have been attacked. You must be careful not to tread on them. They will never believe that you didn't do it deliberately."

Mansilhas might have said that. Mansilhas. Perhaps he and Father Paul had arrived by now. They should have arrived long ago.

Suddenly he stopped. From a tree something was hanging upside down, an animal, not unlike a huge bat. But surely there could be no bats of that size! It had a horrible head, black or dark brown, with large, pointed ears. It looked like a devil.

One of the younger students jumped up and clubbed it to earth with his parasol. A few more strokes and it was dead.

"What did you do that for?" asked Francis with disgust.

"Verrie good to eat", the student grinned. "Flying fox, Father. Wonderful, when cooked."

A country where they held cows sacred and cooked devils. He gave awry smile. "Let's go through the Credo in Tamil again, Coelho", he said. "I must learn it. Visuvasa manthiram— paralogath iyum—pulogathiyum—sarvesar—anai athiokia—bhaktiyaga..."

"Visuvasikirain"; Coelho helped out.
Francis sighed. "Why must every word in Tamil have at least six syllables", he complained. "Avarudya—yega—suthanagya—namudaya..."

"Nathar Yesu", said Coelho, beaming. "Christuvayum..."
"Ah yes, now I know: athikiya—bhakthiyaga visuvasikirain—ivar ispirithu santhuvinalai karpomai urpavithu archayasishta kanni Mariyaiyidathilai nindru piranthu".

"Wonderful, Father", said Coelho. "You are making great progress."

"I know the Ten Commandments", said Francis, "and the Pater and the Ave, but I'm hopelessly lost with the exposition of the Faith and the story of the Gospels. Tell me, Coelho, I know there are those who speak Hindi and Konkani and Tamil, but tell me, quite honestly and frankly how many other languages are there in India?"

"Oh, quite a few", said Coelho, looking away. "There is Pushtu and Urdu and Gujarati, and Telugu and Kanarese and Bengali and Singhalese and Gondi and Malayan and... ."

"That will do", said Francis. They went on silently for a little while. Then Francis said, "Let's get on with the Credo where we left off. Ponchu—pilathinkizhai—padupattu— siluvaiylaiaraiyundu—marith—adakappattar. .."

The names of the villages they passed were of the same ilk. Alantalai, Periytalai, Tiruchendur, Talambuli, Virapandianpatnam, Punaikayal, Palayakayal, Kayalpamam and Kombuturé.

He did not stick to his original idea, to start working only when he had reached Tuticorin. He could not wait. It was bitter to see the shrines and temples on the way, with obscene gods of stone performing obscene actions on temple friezes, with phallic symbols abounding; bitter to see trembling villagers watching overfed cows eating all their food without daring to disturb the sacred animals; bitter to hear that the pearl fishers paid a good percentage of their catch to sorcerers for spells and talismans against the bite of sharks, and paid still more for mantrams against any other kind of danger, trouble and illness.

At Kombuturé they told him about a woman who had been three days in labor and was dying, although her husband had paid the sorcerer for all the aid he could give and the house was full of mantrams of all kinds.


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PostSubject: Re: Set All Afire!   Wed Apr 09, 2008 4:05 am

Coelho shook his head sadly. "The demons are more powerful than the sorcerer and the mantrams", he murmured.

Francis exploded. "Where is that house?" he asked.

Coelho and the other two students tried to hold him back, but they might as well have tried to stop the monsoon with their hands.

Francis stalked into the house.

The sorcerer, with two apprentices, was squatting on the floor; all three of them were drumming on some kind of musical instruments and chanting invocations at the top of their voices. They had put a kettle on the floor, filled with some burning substance that sent up clouds of stinking smoke. In a corner of the room the husband and at least half a dozen youngsters of all ages were crouching, moaning and rolling their eyes in abject fear.

A grotesque figure of clay and half a dozen mantrams were tied to the body of the suffering woman.

Francis took one look. Then he seized the kettle and swung it at the sorcerer and his helpers. They did not wait for what might happen next, but jumped up and raced out. Francis threw the kettle after them, untied the idol and the mantrams and threw them out as well.

A midwife, sitting at the feet of the woman, looked up at him as if she were seeing a demon. The woman herself kept her eyes closed. Now that the noise had subsided, Francis could hear her moaning softly.

He knew nothing of childbirth. The hospitals in which he had nursed his patients in Paris, Venice, Lisbon and Goa were only for men. He thought the woman was dying, as he had been told that she was. She certainly looked as if she were dying. And into a dying woman's room he brought his Lord. It was all he could do and all he set out to do.
"Coelho— translate. Tell her that I am coming in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth..."

Coelho's lips were trembling a little. Perhaps Father Francis was not quite aware of the risk they were taking. Now if the woman died, as surely she would, the sorcerer would say that it was all the fault of these interfering strangers...

"Translate", ordered Francis. "I command you."

Coelho translated. The woman opened her eyes. She fastened her gaze not on Coelho but on the strange face of the white man with its complete absence of fear, with its tranquil smile. Being a woman, she recognized love when she saw it.

"Tell her, Our Blessed Lord wants her to live with him forever. Tell her what he wants her to believe. Visuvasa manthiram—paralogathiyum ...."

She stared at Francis. Her lips moved a little and then she echoed his smile.

"Are you ready to accept what you have heard?" asked Francis gently, when Coelho had finished translating the last part of the Creed. "Can you believe it?"

Oh yes, she could. She could.

He took the New Testament out of his pocket and read out the story of the birth of the Christ Child. Coelho translated again. From time to time he looked towards the entrance of the house. The crowd outside was growing larger and larger. They would never get away alive. He was sweating. But he went on translating.

"Water", said Francis. When they brought it to him, he baptized the woman.
Coelho, looking on, prayed for all he was worth. In a state of utter confusion he implored God to save their lives, to save the woman, to prevent the sorcerer from making the villagers storm the hut, to have mercy on him, on Father Francis—on everybody.

A sudden tremor went through the body of the woman, she threw back her head and gave a loud cry. Instantly the midwife sprang up.

Francis took a step backwards.

At first he did not know that labor had started again after hours of interruption. But he knew it soon enough.

Minutes later the child was there, and a few seconds later yelling lustily.

Outside the villagers broke into a howl of enthusiasm that shook the hut.
Two hours later Francis had baptized the husband, three sons, four daughters and the newly born infant, another son.
Coelho was grinning from ear to ear.

But for Francis this was no more than the beginning. He stepped outside, where the villagers were still howling their joy to heaven and asked for the headman. Coelho had to tell him that Father Francis wanted the entire village to accept Jesus Christ as their God and Lord.

The headman scratched himself thoughtfully. They would do so gladly, but they could not—not without the permission of the Rajah.

"Where is that Rajah?" asked Francis curtly.


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PostSubject: Re: Set All Afire!   Wed Apr 09, 2008 4:06 am

Coelho passed on the question. The Rajah was far away, very far away, but there was an official here, who represented him. He had come to collect the taxes for his master.
Francis went to see him at once.

The tax collector was at first a little suspicious. If these people accepted this new belief, would they still be willing to pay their taxes to the Rajah? They would? Well...

Francis began to explain the tenets of Christianity to the man who listened politely. In the end he gave permission in the name of his master. He himself? No, no. This new thing seemed very good, but he himself could not accept it. He was the Rajah's man. The Rajah would have to give the order to him personally.

"It is a pitee—a great pitee", said Coelho, when the man withdrew, rather hastily. "We could have called him Matthew."

It took all next day to baptize every man, woman and child of the village and two days more to tell them at least the rudiments of what they must know.

As they left, they saw the woman with her newborn babe in her arms standing in the door of the hut, smiling at them and making the sign of the Cross.

The children came in droves. There was no holding them back. They beleaguered the hut in Tuticorin, they stormed it and sat all around Francis, chattering away, nudging him, clambering up on his lap. They chanted the Creed and the Ten Commandments, the Pater and the Ave and they went on chanting when they went home. The very air of Tuticorin was full of it.

"Ants", said Coelho disapprovingly. "Ex-actly like ants. You can do nothing. You can only go away or they eat you up."

Francis shook his head. "That's not the way you've been taught. What did Our Lord say about children?"

"Of such is the kingdom of heaven'", quoted Coelho dutifully. "They will have to make less noise there, though. Perrrsonallee, I cannot see why it is good for the kingdom of heaven, if these brats do not let you eat or sleep ever!"

"They ask questions", said Francis, beaming. "They want to know, Coelho. They do not accept it, as if it were just another law of their Rajah's. They are full of it, God bless them and send me more of them."

He had his wish. In fact he could never go anywhere, without at least a hundred and often hundreds of young, shiny brown bodies milling around him. Soon enough he made teachers of them who brought the truth he had taught them to houses where he had no access as well as to their own homes.

The very first thing he uprooted in their young souls was the fear he saw time and again in the eyes of their parents, fear of the spirits and demons of the woods and sea and air and fire, fear of witches' spells and sorcerers' power. It was no more and no less than a revolution. Never in the history of the Paravas had demons been treated with such irreverence.

The children delighted in reporting to him when and where one of those ghastly meetings would take place, where black cocks and rams were sacrificed to Bhawani, Siva's bloodthirsty wife and where everyone cringed before the eye of the priest of the goddess, to whom she gave power to wish any evil he liked on those who did not sacrifice enough and particularly on those who for some reason or other did not turn up at the meeting.
When they told him about that for the first time, Francis looked around the crowd of youngsters: "Who's coming with me to help beat the devil?"

They were so enthusiastic that he had to warn them. None of them was to say a word about it to anybody else. None of them was to do anything, except on the Father's direct order.

They assembled just as silently as did the worshipers of Bhawani and they appeared at the meeting, sixty boys, all between ten and fifteen or sixteen, just as the fat and entrails of a black ram began sizzling in a copper vessel before the statue of the atrocious goddess.

They pelted Bhawani with stones, then rushed in and upset everything and everybody.
Francis himself walked in and pushed the six-foot statue off its pedestal. It was of wood. He poured the contents of the boiling kettle over the statue. "Such is the power of Bhawani", he said in a ringing voice. "From now on no Parava will serve her or any other demon."

The villagers were in a daze. They had seen their boys burning mantrams and heaping ridicule on the sorcerers, but never before had anyone dared anything like this. The priest of Bhawani had vanished with great speed, and the goddess herself did not seem to take any action.

Standing on the wooden image of the fallen foe, Francis intoned the Creed while all his boys chanted with him.

Many such raids followed. Sometimes Francis took several hundred boys with him, to the utter destruction of a temple dedicated to the monkey-god, Hanuman, or to the potbellied, elephant-headed Ganesha.

"You must plow the field before you can sow the seed", he told Coelho. "And you must uproot the weeds that are only good for the fire."
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PostSubject: Re: Set All Afire!   Mon Apr 28, 2008 5:28 pm

What happened in Tuticorin and Kombuturé, happened in five, ten, twenty, thirty villages, all along the seacoast. Everywhere Francis preached, admonished, won over, baptized. Everywhere the children streamed to him to become his friends, his catechists, his ambassadors and his army. It was a bad time for demons. It was a bad time also for those who were ridden by one of those demons for whom no statue was erected even by the idol-loving Paravas: the demon of arrack, the toddy made of the juice extracted from the Palmyra palms. Francis made the headmen of each village responsible for the drunkenness prevailing in his domain, when he found that many a Paravas, under the influence of attack, mistook his brother or friend for a shark and went at him with the long knife.

He raced up and down from Vêdâlai in the North to Cape Comorin, sometimes with Coelho or another of his three helpers, sometimes accompanied by the headman of a village. It was necessary that the whole tribe understand that he was never too far away not to appear quite suddenly.

He was like a sheep dog, circling the herd and keeping the flock together, the only sheep dog for twenty thousand sheep grazing on a field of one hundred and forty miles in length.

He knew only too well that his work was insecure and he also knew why. Not only human nature, weak and prone to sin ever since the Fall, even human habit which reverted time and again to haunting old fears and the thousand and one superstitions which were supposed to banish them, not only arrack and datura and other poisons that made a man forget his miseries instead of carrying them as a man should—it was a certain class of men who endangered his work.

His first encounter with one of that class had shown him the power these men had over the minds and bodies of the Paravas.

In Punakayal, in the main street of the teeming village, while talking to the headman, he noticed a tall, emaciated figure sauntering down the street. It was a man of sixty with a well-kept gray beard and a caste mark just above a proud nose. People were drawn back right and left and bowing. He did not respond to their courtesy. He did not even seem to see them. A child of perhaps four years of age, a little boy, was sitting in the middle of the street, cheerfully playing with a few sticks.

The tall man gave it a single glance and then stepped carefully aside, passing the child at a distance of several feet.

"At least the fellow seems to like children", said Francis.

The headman shook his head. "How could a twice-born like one who is only a Sudra?" he whispered.

"A what? Why did he step aside then?"

"He must not be polluted by the shadow of a Sudra child. He is a twice-born, a Brahman. Don't you see the sacred thread from his shoulder to the waist?"

Francis gave the man a hard stare.

The Brahman passed him as if he were not there at all.

Then and there Francis decided to tackle the "twice-born". He did not know that he already had trespassed on their immediate sphere of power, when he first led his swarm of boys against the meeting in honor of Bhawani.

Coelho then gave him at least an inkling of what he was up against. The Brahmans were the spiritual aristocracy of India, initiates to the sacred mysteries, towering high above all other castes, untouchable in their exalted rank, as the harijan were untouchable because of their lowliness. They were so holy that they could not eat food if as much as the shadow of a man of low caste had fallen upon it. They were priests, sages and prophets and their influence was immense. All the pearl fishers were Sudras. The caste was hereditary. No Sudra could possibly stand up against a Brahman.

"We shall see", said Francis grimly.

The twice-born came to visit him that same day. The villagers recoiled and fled at the man's approach and to his astonishment and anger Francis saw that even Coelho was uneasy.

The Brahman was dignified and courteous. He had heard so much about the foreign sannyasi, who was such a great teacher and could cure men by just looking at them. He was delighted to make his acquaintance and to bid him welcome in the land of the Paravas. It was most kind of the foreign sannyasi to bother about the spiritual enlightenment of such ill-favored and low-caste dogs as the Paravas. The Brahmans knew only too well how difficult it was to teach them anything at all beyond the exertion of their natural faculties.

Four servants brought baskets full of presents: fresh fruit, meat, betel and, in a beautiful ivory box, a number of beautiful pearls—pearls conquered from the sea in the face of appalling risks by the ill-favored and low-caste dogs of Paravas and sacrificed by them to the Brahmans in exchange for a blessing or, more likely still, claimed and received by the Brahmans as dutiful tribute to potbellied Ganesha or bloody Bhawani.

"Please accept in kindness these little tokens", said the Brahman, "tokens of our admiration and respect and the sign of the respect we servants of the gods have for each other."


"There is only one God", said Francis stiffly.
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PostSubject: Re: Set All Afire!   Sun May 11, 2008 4:57 pm

Coelho shook his head sadly. "The demons are more powerful than the sorcerer and the mantrams", he murmured.

Francis exploded. "Where is that house?" he asked.

Coelho and the other two students tried to hold him back, but they might as well have tried to stop the monsoon with their hands.

Francis stalked into the house.

The sorcerer, with two apprentices, was squatting on the floor; all three of them were drumming on some kind of musical instruments and chanting invocations at the top of their voices. They had put a kettle on the floor, filled with some burning substance that sent up clouds of stinking smoke. In a corner of the room the husband and at least half a dozen youngsters of all ages were crouching, moaning and rolling their eyes in abject fear.

A grotesque figure of clay and half a dozen mantrams were tied to the body of the suffering woman.

Francis took one look. Then he seized the kettle and swung it at the sorcerer and his helpers. They did not wait for what might happen next, but jumped up and raced out. Francis threw the kettle after them, untied the idol and the mantrams and threw them out as well.

A midwife, sitting at the feet of the woman, looked up at him as if she were seeing a demon. The woman herself kept her eyes closed. Now that the noise had subsided, Francis could hear her moaning softly.

He knew nothing of childbirth. The hospitals in which he had nursed his patients in Paris, Venice, Lisbon and Goa were only for men. He thought the woman was dying, as he had been told that she was. She certainly looked as if she were dying. And into a dying woman's room he brought his Lord. It was all he could do and all he set out to do.

"Coelho— translate. Tell her that I am coming in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth..."

Coelho's lips were trembling a little. Perhaps Father Francis was not quite aware of the risk they were taking. Now if the woman died, as surely she would, the sorcerer would say that it was all the fault of these interfering strangers...

"Translate", ordered Francis. "I command you."

Coelho translated. The woman opened her eyes. She fastened her gaze not on Coelho but on the strange face of the white man with its complete absence of fear, with its tranquil smile. Being a woman, she recognized love when she saw it.

"Tell her, Our Blessed Lord wants her to live with him forever. Tell her what he wants her to believe. Visuvasa manthiram—paralogathiyum ...."

She stared at Francis. Her lips moved a little and then she echoed his smile.

"Are you ready to accept what you have heard?" asked Francis gently, when Coelho had finished translating the last part of the Creed. "Can you believe it?"

Oh yes, she could. She could.

He took the New Testament out of his pocket and read out the story of the birth of the Christ Child. Coelho translated again. From time to time he looked towards the entrance of the house. The crowd outside was growing larger and larger. They would never get away alive. He was sweating. But he went on translating.

"Water", said Francis. When they brought it to him, he baptized the woman.
Coelho, looking on, prayed for all he was worth. In a state of utter confusion he implored God to save their lives, to save the woman, to prevent the sorcerer from making the villagers storm the hut, to have mercy on him, on Father Francis—on everybody.

A sudden tremor went through the body of the woman, she threw back her head and gave a loud cry. Instantly the midwife sprang up.

Francis took a step backwards.

At first he did not know that labor had started again after hours of interruption. But he knew it soon enough.

Minutes later the child was there, and a few seconds later yelling lustily.

Outside the villagers broke into a howl of enthusiasm that shook the hut.

Two hours later Francis had baptized the husband, three sons, four daughters and the newly born infant, another son.

Coelho was grinning from ear to ear.

But for Francis this was no more than the beginning. He stepped outside, where the villagers were still howling their joy to heaven and asked for the headman. Coelho had to tell him that Father Francis wanted the entire village to accept Jesus Christ as their God and Lord.

The headman scratched himself thoughtfully. They would do so gladly, but they could not—not without the permission of the Rajah.

"Where is that Rajah?" asked Francis curtly.
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