ASIA/CHINA - The Island of Saint Francis Xavier: the first shrine for Chinese Catholics

Sunday, 3 December 2023 saints   mission   evangelization   sanctuaries  

by Marta Zhao
Shangchuan (Agenzia Fides) - The life of the great Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier is a faithful reflection of the words of Jesus in the Gospel of John: " Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit" (Jn 12, 24).

At the age of 46, Francis Xavier - whose feast day is commemorated in the church today - dies of pneumonia in a leaf hut on the island of Shangchuan off Guandong, the coastal province of the China he wanted to reach. All he has with him is a crucifix and a Chinese man who has recently converted to Christianity and who should have accompanied him on his new adventure as an interpreter. It looks like a failure. It is the image of the "Twilight of the Jesuit" that José Maria Péman tells in his play "The Impatient Divine", which Pope Francis also recalls several times. Nevertheless, Francis Xavier is celebrated today as the patron saint of missions and revered as a great missionary.
After 471 years, this excellent "grain of wheat" still bears abundant fruit, even spreading to Shangchuan Island, where he died at dawn on December 3, 1552.
For Francis Xavier, China was not a forbidden "dream" or an unfulfilled missionary ambition. This is evidenced by the hundreds of missionaries who, after him, brought the Gospel to China and followed in the footsteps of his apostolic work. The island of Shangchuan itself, where his earthly life ended, also tells the story in its own way. From this place, the southern gateway to China and also an outpost of the Silk Road, it can be said that Francis Xavier continues to watch over the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ in China.
On Shangchuan Island there is an entire park surrounding the cemetery dedicated to the holy Jesuit missionary, a place that has been called China's first shrine, an important place for the faith of many Chinese Catholics and pilgrims of other countries, visited by catechumens of all ages. A place marked by a chapel, a large statue of St. Francis Xavier, a cross and a fountain, where many come to find refreshment and new strength for their Christian journey.
Thanks to St. Francis Xavier, Shangchuan Island is now a popular pilgrimage site for many Christians from all over the world. Civil authorities also contribute to maintaining this place of worship and spirituality.
As early as August 1986, the authorities of Taishan County, which also governs Shangchuan Island, allocated funds which, together with donations from Chinese Catholics from all over the world, financed the restoration of the cemetery to its original appearance, a place of prayer and reflection whose history dates back to 1700. The remains of Saint Francis Xavier have been resting in the Basilica of the Good Jesus (Basilica do Bom Jesus) in Goa since 1553. However, in the cemetery of Shangchuan Island there is a symbolic mausoleum of the saint and a plaque dedicated to him,
dating back to 1639, the period of the Qing Dynasty, on which is engraved in Chinese and Portuguese: "This is the eternal resting place of Saint Francis Xavier, the Jesuit preacher of the Orient". Groups of Catholics in China and abroad have contributed to the preservation and restoration of the site, a work in which the Canossian nuns of Hong Kong have distinguished themselves. The steps leading to the main entrance of the cemetery on the hill were built, and the road of the "Via Crucis" that goes up from the hill to the monument. Furthermore, a pagoda, a statue of the Saint and a stone cross were built along the road.
In 2006, former students and friends of the Hong Kong Jesuits' Wah Yan College donated to the restoration of the cemetery to mark the 500th anniversary of the birth of Saint Francis Xavier. In September 2011, the Taishan Municipality recognized the saint's tomb as a municipality site and heritage site. In December 2015, the Guangdong provincial government also recognized the site as a provincial heritage site.
According to the Chinese government, the Francis Xavier Cemetery provides important evidence for studying the impact of the Maritime Silk Road on Chinese culture and religion.
Chinese and foreign pilgrims come from all over the world to pray on Shangchuan Island. A cross erected on the seashore welcomes the people; A few steps up the stone steps is the chapel dedicated to St. Francis Xavier, where it is remembered that the saint traveled thousands of kilometers by sea to proclaim the Gospel of Christ everywhere.
A stone staircase on the back of the hill, flanked by images of the Stations of the Cross, leads to the summit where the large statue of Franz Xavier stands. The pine trees surrounding the statue are curved. Local belief is that the pines miraculously bent out of reverence for the saint. Even more surprising is the well from where the saint drew the water he needed for his daily life. The well is located near the sea, and according to the islanders, it is completely flooded during high tide. But when the tide goes out, the water comes back clear and sweet, without a grain of sand, so it is safe to drink.
In these places, many pilgrims gain strength for their journey; they feel compelled to persevere by walking in the footsteps of St. Francis Xavier.
“The great missionary Francis Xavier,” Pope Francis recalled in the interview book “Senza di Lui non possiamo far nulla” (Without him we can do nothing), “dies like this, looking at China, where he wanted to go and was unable to enter. He dies like that, with nothing, alone before the Lord. He dies there, he is buried, and it is like burying a seed." This fate, the Pope added, befell all missionaries who were buried in the countries of their mission: "By dying in these places , they were planted like seeds in this land." True missionaries of all kinds, added the Successor of Peter, "are not just 'emissaries.' They are not mediators. You go on mission following Jesus, with Jesus, together with Jesus. You go with him. And when they are great missionaries, you understand that he is the one who brings them". (Agenzia Fides, 3/12/2023)