“WILL THEY SUSPEND THEIR DISBELIEF?” (Mt 8:5-11): 03 December 2007 (Monday – Feast of Francis Xavier)

“WILL THEY SUSPEND THEIR DISBELIEF?” (Mt 8:5-11):  03 December 2007 (Monday – Feast of Francis Xavier)


There is a story about St. Francis Xavier that even the most pious among us may find hard to believe.  It involves–of all things–a crab!  The story goes this way:  In 1546, Francis Xavier’s boat was caught in a storm in the Moluccas.  During the voyage, he accidentally dropped his crucifix into the turbulent waters and gave it up for lost. The next day, however, as he was walking by the sea, a crab miraculously brought his crucifix back to him.

Did the event actually happen?  If we believe in miracles, if we hold that “nothing is impossible with God,” of course we have to concede that such a miracle is at least possible. But given the laws of nature and the usual way the world operates, we also have to quickly add that it’s probably unlikely that a particularly helpful and honest crab happened to be swimming around in the stormy sea and conveniently found the lost crucifix, grabbing it by its claw and delivering it personally back to the saint.

But what’s so remarkable about this story is not so much that it happened (because really, who knows if it did?), but that so many people actually believed it.  In fact, the crab story was depicted on the altar at  Xavier’s canonization rites and was one of the four miracles represented on the banner that decorated the basilica for the occasion.  This, for me, is the real miracle–that the people who knew Francis Xavier believed so much in his holiness that they were willing to believe such an incredible legend.  The crab story is proof of Xavier’s holiness not so much because of the alleged miracle, but because of people’s utter willingness to suspend their disbelief about this most unlikely of stories.  My hunch is that they must have seen in Xavier enough of God to believe that normal animal behavior would miraculously alter to serve the saint.

It seems to me then that the holier a person is, the more eager people will be to suspend their disbelief and accept even the fantastic and impossible.  This is how the centurion was with Jesus in the gospel story.  But the opposite is also true:  The less reputation for holiness a person has, the less easily convinced people will be about one’s ability to perform extraordinary miracles–or come to think of it, even simply in that person’s ordinary capacity to do good.

So let’s ask ourselves this question:  “If people hear that I did something good, will they believe me?  Will they be willing to suspend their disbelief?”

One unforgettable evening over twenty years ago, I invited a small group of high school friends to dinner.  After the meal, I broke the news: I had made the important decision to quit my job to enter the priesthood.  The stunned silence that followed my announcement was eventually broken by one of my best friends, who could not hide his disbelief. “That’s impossible!’ he said with his characteristic candor and lack of tact.  “You’ve got all the wrong values!”

So much for suspension of disbelief!  Of course we all had a good laugh over that, but I realized that given his reaction, I might as well have told him the crab story!

Today we remember St. Francis Xavier, a holy man and one of the greatest missionaries in history.  May he inspire us to keep working at being holy or even at simply doing good.  And not because we want our friends to believe some crab story about us in the future, but because we hope that like those who knew St. Francis Xavier, people will also catch a glimpse of God in us.

(image:  Jgotinga)