St. Francis Xavier, S.J.¹
Born: 7 April 1506
Died: 3 December 1552
Canonized: by Pope Gregory XV in 1622
Patron: The Missions
A trip to Rome would be slightly deprived without a visit to the church of Sant’Ignazio, dedicated in honour of the canonization of the founder of the Jesuit order, St. Ignatius of Loyola. Although he is not buried there, a piece of art adorns the ceiling of this church which is one of the most stunning frescoes in the world. The Apotheosis of St. Ignatius was painted by a Jesuit brother, Andrea Pozzo, as a way of honouring the voracious missionary efforts of his own beloved order.
When standing beneath this magnificent painting, one beholds a most elusive of optical illusions. While looking up at what is actually an entirely flat ceiling, it looks as though it ascends infinitely into the glory of heaven. In the centre of the celestial glory is depicted St. Ignatius, rising towards the blessed Trinity, out of Whom radiates beams of glory. These beams penetrate St. Ignatius, and as though he were a prism, they break forth out of him into four directions, each ray of light illuminating each corner of the painting which are representative of the four continents of Europe, Africa, Asia and America. This is a very accurate presentation of what truly was accomplished by Jesuit missionaries, especially in the first several centuries following its founding.
Perhaps the greatest and most well known of these missionaries is St. Francis Xavier, who may actually be he whom Pozzo intended to depict over the continent of Asia. This would be very fitting as St. Francis was possibly the greatest evangelist to have ever walked that vast continent, if not the greatest evangelist in the history of Christianity.
Francis was born of a noble family in the Castle of Xavier in the Navarre region of Spain on 7 April 1506. Enjoying all of the privileges of a wealthy upbringing, Francis also received a high caliber education. This would eventually take him to study abroad where he completed his secondary studies and the modern equivalent of an undergraduate degree in Paris at le Collège de Sainte-Barbe. It was here that he met and became friends with a classmate, Pierre Favre. These two comrades did everything together, including a fateful meeting with a guest of the college which would dramatically change the trajectory of their lives.
A countryman of theirs who had been wounded in battle was spending part of his convalescence at the college putting the finishing touches on a major project he had undertaken. It was his intention to establish a society of missionaries who would travel to every corner of the earth in order to spread the Catholic faith. The charisma and passion of this man called Ignatius drew the young Francis and Pierre to his side, eager to help him bring his vision to fruition. Joined by a few other companions, this group of seven men took a set of unique vows based upon the evangelical counsels and fidelity to the Magisterium of Holy Mother Church on 15 August 1534 and so was born the Society of Jesus.
Having completed his studies, Francis went on to teach in that same college for two years before setting sail for Italy with his new brothers. This brought them first to Venice where he displayed zeal and charity in tending to the sick. Less than a year after his arrival, on 24 June 1537, he received the sacrament of Holy Orders alongside his superior, Ignatius. The following year the company of seven went to Rome to serve in doing apostolic work but the more important task took place during the spring of 1539 when Ignatius held a conference to prepare for the definitive foundation of the Society of Jesus. The order was verbally sanctioned on 3 September. However, before the decree was published the following year, Francis was requested by John III, King of Portugal, to go to the Portuguese colony in eastern India to evangelize the people.
With the approval of Ignatius, he left Rome on 16 March 1540 and reached Lisbon about June. He remained there nine months in preparation for his maiden voyage as a missionary preacher. Until that time, he had been largely involved in doing apostolate with the needy and helping to establish the order. It was time to put the Society’s mission into effect.
On 7 April 1541, he embarked by sea for India and after a tedious and dangerous voyage, landed at Goa, 6 May 1542; nearly a year on the open waters. He spent the first five months engaged in his usual work of ministering to the sick. Eventually, he began to initiate his mission of preaching. It was his strategy to begin with the formation of the youth. He did so by passing through the streets ringing a little bell and inviting the children to hear the word of God. When he had gathered a number, he would take them to a certain church and would there give them catechism classes. This was a brilliant and underused strategy which we would do well to return to today. Evangelization of the family through the children coming to faith is a surefire way to at least attract the attention of their parents.
Francis was aware that he was not the first person to preach the faith on the continent. Tradition held that St. Thomas the Apostle had already evangelized India mere decades after the death of Christ. However, how far south he had made it was unclear and due to a variety of circumstances, there had been few to no priests there for centuries. Need for a new evangelization was in order. About October 1542, he embarked upon the pearl fisheries of the extreme southern coast of the peninsula with the hope of restoring Christianity there. He devoted almost three years to the work of preaching to the people of Western India, converting many, and reaching in his journeys even the Island of Ceylon, modern day Sri Lanka. These exploits were accompanied by many difficulties such as persecution by the local rulers as well as the bad example of some of the Portuguese who, though members of the faith Francis preached, certainly showed no proof of it by the way they lived their lives. The task he faced was gargantuan.
For the next two years, Francis travelled and preached throughout many of the nearby and surrounding islands. This naturally involved an incredible amount of time at sea. Though his labour was intensive, there were many abuses and unchristian practices which needed to be uprooted among the people. Although his efforts and successes were remarkable, they were not irresistible. He was faced with the constant need to persevere in the face of setbacks. However, he did so very heroically and continued to preach the gospel in season and out of season. It has never been officially confirmed, nor is it even possible to do so, but there is reason to believe that on his expeditions from India, he may even had made it to the island of Mindanao which is part of the modern day Philippines. For this reason, some have even claimed him to be the first to preach the gospel there.
In July of 1547 he had returned to Malacca where providence arranged an encounter with a Japanese man called Anjira. He deeply impressed Francis. Not only was he a man of culture and sophistication, but he actively sought to learn more about Christianity. Naturally, this aroused Francis’ apostolic zeal as thoughts of evangelizing the people of Japan flooded his imagination. If they were anything like Anjira, it would prove a much different experience than his dealings with the village fishermen and hunters with whom he had largely been dealing. Other Jesuit confreres of his had also arrived in Goa and so he felt confident that their work would carry on and he could be free to take on new apostolic horizons. In fact, even some local Goan men had joined the Society. He was leaving things in great shape.
In the summer of 1549, the newly baptized Anjira, now called Pablo de Santa Fe, led Francis and some companions and ship hands on the voyage to his homeland. They landed at the city of Kagoshima in Japan on the 15th anniversary of his first profession of vows, 15 August. Their entire first year was devoted to learning the Japanese language and translating into Japanese, with the help of Pablo de Santa Fe, the principle articles of the creed and other tracts which were to be employed in their catechesis. Once he felt capable of expressing himself in the native language Francis began preaching and made some converts. This was not well received by the Buddhist monks there who were offended by Francis’ vocal opposition to certain of their sexually immoral ways. This forced Francis and his compatriots to leave the city after only a year of being there. He set his eyes, then, on Meaco, a central city which at that time was more like the nation’s capital. However, political tensions made his preaching no easier there. He managed to just travel by land in the central region finding great success in getting small Christian communities established wherever he went. After working a bit more than two years throughout Japan he left this mission in charge of Father Cosme de Torres and Brother Juan Fernández in order that he could return to his beloved Goa. At his departure from Japan, the Christian communities were growing rapidly.
Sadly, though, his return to Goa was met by domestic troubles. Certain disagreements between the superior who had been left in charge of the mission and the rector of the college required some mediation. It is hard to believe that he would have returned to India for little more than to settle a dispute, but it was not long after he had done so that his burning inclination to preach the gospel flared again. This time, his intended destination was China. He had heard much about this powerful empire during his stay in Japan, though his estimation of the task was probably under exaggerated. In the autumn of 1552 he arrived in a Portuguese vessel at the small island of Sancian near the coast of China. Unfortunately, while planning the best means for reaching the mainland, he took ill, and the movement of the vessel on the rough ocean waters was not helping his condition. He was removed to the land, where a hut had been built to shelter him. Ironically, the man who had brought the faith to countless numbers in many exotic places would breathe his last in this meager island hut surrounded by so few.
In the short span of ten years from his first voyage on 6 May 1542 until his death on 3 December 1552, Francis Xavier covered thousands of miles in travel, introduced the faith to tens of thousands and at his own hands claimed no less than 30,000² souls for Christ through Holy Baptism.
There is no disputing the fact that in his lifetime, his renown was widespread as a wonder worker. His natural gifts and abilities were in themselves rather heroic. His physical endurance; his tenacity in the apostolate; his capacity for languages and ability to express himself convincingly in foreign tongues; all of these pointed to his extraordinary character. Although miracles always help one to secure a saintly standing- and there were miracles reported ranging from simple healings to the raising of the dead- his personal sanctity was evidenced more in the letters he wrote to his superior than in the great works God performed through him. Volumes of these letters have been preserved and we can hear in them the tone of urgency with which he carried out his missionary efforts. In one particular letter, appointed to be read in the Divine Office on his feast day, we see his exasperation at the fact that so few dedicated themselves to the missions, “ Many, many people hereabouts are not becoming Christians for one reason only: there is nobody to make them Christians. Again and again I have thought of going round the universities of Europe, especially Paris, and everywhere crying out like a madman, riveting the attention of those with more learning than charity: “What a tragedy: how many souls are being shut out of heaven and falling into hell, thanks to you!” I wish they would work as hard at this as they do at their books, and so settle their account with God for their learning and the talents entrusted to them.”³
Would that some of his zeal stirred us to carry out the New Evangelization with such commitment! Francis Xavier was canonized with St. Ignatius in 1622. His mostly incorrupt body is still enshrined at Goa today, this year being the decennial when his earthly remains are exposed for public veneration. Approximately 5 million pilgrims are expected to pay their homage to their true father in faith.4
In 1614 by order of Claudius Acquaviva, General of the Society of Jesus, his right arm was severed at the elbow and translated to Rome, where the present altar to his memory was erected to receive it in the Jesuit church of Il Gesù where also are found the mortal remains of St. Ignatius of Loyola.
St. Francis Xavier was declared the patron of all missions in 1927. We would do well to invoke his intercession often in our individual efforts to advance the New Evangelization which so much of the once-Christian world now so desperately needs.
St. Francis Xavier, pray for us!
A Novena of Grace (Traditionally offered to St. Francis Xavier’s miraculous intercession)
1 Biographical details can be found at: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06233b.htm