Figure of St Francis Xavier


Materials:  Moulded plastic, paint, light bulbs
Dimensions:  19 centimeters high
Place acquired: Goa, India, 2005
Place of manufacture:  India

Religious belief is one thing, billions of people have that. But to link belief to the completely separate notion that everyone in the world should, or must, believe in the same thing as you, that other beliefs are lesser, or evil, and that it is your mission, told to you personally by God, to make everyone see the error of their ways – well, where would a psychiatrist start? Delusions of grandeur, paranoia, schizophrenia? Is extreme missionary evangelism a form of mental disorder then?

Take the case of St Francis Xavier. He is celebrated by the Catholic church as having converted more people to Christianity than anyone else except St Paul. In 1541, as a young Jesuit priest he was first entrusted by the king of Portugal with leading a mission to the portuguese colonies in India, mainly to oversee the piety of the portuguese settlers. He took his mission much more seriously however, and spent the rest of his life in India, Indonesia, and as far away as Japan, tirelessly and aggressively converting people from what he regarded as ‘devil worship’. He clearly took a zealous pleasure in overseeing the destruction of all evidence of the religions he was supplanting. In one of his letters he says,

"When I have finished baptizing the people, I order them to destroy the huts in which they keep their idols; and I have them break the statues of their idols into tiny pieces, since they are now Christians. I could never end describing to you the great consolation which fills my soul when I see idols being destroyed by the hands of those who had been idolaters."

His letters also frankly reveal his preference for converting the young and underprivileged, and then using them as informers, thought police and enforcers on the wider population. It feels a bit like the Hitler Youth, or maybe Mao’s Red Guards.

The interesting thing is that you still get a strong impression of his personality in the iconography that surrounds him today nearly five hundred years after his death. In most pictures and statues he is seen brandishing a crucifix on high, eyes staring ahead with stern missionary zeal. This little figure illustrates this well. It was bought in Panjim in Goa, only a few miles from where his preserved body still lies in an elaborate glass-sided casket. The figure is cheaply made in painted plastic, and is wired with two small lights so that it can stand as an illuminated shrine on a sideboard or bedside table. It was made to sell within the Catholic community of Goa where St Xavier is a revered saint. His personality is not the issue here. His role as the original missionary 'converter' seems to be more important. He is a marker of identity and pride for a small Catholic community that still survives, surrounded by other larger faiths.