A martyr for the faith?

An American missionary’s ill-fated venture

On Dec. 3, we observed the feast of St. Francis Xavier, patron saint of the Diocese of Green Bay and one of the church’s greatest missionaries. Born in Navarre, Spain, on April 7, 1506, he was a friend of Ignatius Loyola and helped him establish the Society of Jesus in 1540.

A Jesuit himself, Xavier began his missionary life in 1541, when he was sent to India. He later traveled to Malaysia and Japan and was bound for China when he became ill and died in 1552 on the island of Shangchuan. Canonized with St. Ignatius in 1622, St. Francis Xavier is known as the Apostle to the Indies and Japan.

The story of St. Francis Xavier and his missionary exploits come to mind after learning about the death of John Allen Chau, 26, an American missionary killed Nov. 16 by tribesmen on North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal near India. The island is not too far from where Francis Xavier preached the Gospel nearly 500 years ago.

According to news reports, Chau, a fundamentalist Christian who had attended Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla., traveled to the island illegally. The Sentinelese tribe’s privacy is protected by the government of India, which has ships monitor the waters around the island. Chau paid fishermen to transport him close to the island and then used a kayak to paddle to shore.

Chau was apparently killed by arrows shot at him. The fishermen who accompanied him witnessed tribesmen dragging and burying his body the following morning. Few outsiders have visited the island. Those who have, such as two Indian fishermen who drifted onto the island in 2006, have been brutally killed.

The ill-fated and illicit mission excursion left many unanswered questions. Was Chau’s desire to introduce the Gospel to this tribe — one that has existed thousands of years without contact from the outside world, and whose language and culture virtually are unknown — wise? Did he endanger the lives of tribal members by passing on diseases to which their immune systems have never been exposed?

According to Survival International, which seeks to defend the survival of tribal people, the Sentinelese risk extinction from disease.

“British colonial occupation of the Andaman Islands (home of the Sentinelese) decimated the tribes living there, wiping out thousands of tribespeople, and only a fraction of the original population now survive,” said Stephen Corry, Survival International director.

The Catholic Church was founded on a missionary mandate. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus sends out his apostles with the words, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations …” The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “It is from God’s love for all men that the church in every age receives both the obligation and the vigor of her missionary dynamism, ‘for the love of Christ urges us on’” (CCC 851).

How are we as modern-day Christians supposed to respond to Jesus’ Great Commission and yet respect the isolated and guarded lives of one of the world’s last uncontacted tribes?

The Catechism also states that the Holy Spirit is the “principal agent of the whole of the church’s mission. It is he who leads the church on her mission paths” (CCC 852).

A lot has changed since the time St. Francis Xavier introduced Jesus to strangers. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is telling us the time is not right for Christians to witness their faith to the Sentinelese. There are many other people around the world, even in our own communities, who need to hear the Good News. Maybe that is where today’s missionaries are called to serve.