Friday, September 20, 2019

St Francis Xavier's Triumphant Return

Photo by Carl Mydans
May 1949.  Nagasaki, Japan. The Vatican ensured that a venerated relic - the right forearm of St. Francis Xavier - would be present for a mass celebrating the 400th anniversary of Xavier's arrival in Japan.  Francis Xavier, born in Spain in 1506, was a priest whose vocation led him to evangelize across the far east, including Portuguese Goa, India, Indonesia, and Japan.  Communities of converts - the legacy of Xavier's work - exist to this day in these countries.

The relic employed in the 1949 Mass in Nagasaki was Xavier's mumified arm. This was the arm he used to conduct blessings and baptisms.  Some 60 years after his death, church leaders detached his arm for preservation among other saintly relics archived by the Vatican.

Fast forward to 1949. Most of us know Nagasaki, Japan for its fate in 1945 at the dawn of atomic warfare.  But were it not for that event, Nagasaki may have been noted primarily as a bastion of Catholic faith in an otherwise Buddist society. That the Vatican would take extraordinary measures to transport a venerated relic to the other side of the world demostrates calculated reflection. On one hand, Nagasaki remained largely devastated by the atomic blast of 1945; people were still dying (slowly) from radiation poisoning. But the 400th anniversary of Xavier's missionary work loomed, thus opening a potential gesture for reconciliation.

May 1949.  The St. Francis Xavier relic is physically present for Mass conducted in the ruins of a Nagasaki cathedral. 
Along with Life Magazine's Carl Mydans, the Mass attracted a fair number of curious American military personnel from their occupation billets. Among them was U.S. Arny CPL Lacy Barnett of Alabama.

Not present was PVT Philip Hughes, who at the time was only 16 and had yet to join the Army.  He would not step foot on Japanese shores until May 1950, too late to witness the ceremony in Nagasaki. But he did pass through the city on the way to his billet in Sasebo.  Philip - once an orphan and unsuccessfully groomed by his adoptive parents to be a priest - witnessed in Nagasaki only the devastation of man's propensity for war. He missed the modest attempt at reconciliation offered in Japan by the Catholic Mass on St. Francis Xavier's anniversary.  He missed seeing the sinewy relic of Xavier's arm - withered much like the human remains of victims from the atomic blast. Philip, however, would not be spared the sights attributable to his role as a combatant in the early weeks of the Korean War. It was there that Philip found his mortal destiny. 

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