On 3 December, the Church celebrates the feast day of St Francis Xavier. The patron saint of missionaries and one of the founders of the Society of Jesus, St Francis Xavier preached the gospel throughout Asia during the 1500s.
On 15 August 1534, seven students met in the crypt beneath the Church of Saint Denis, on the hill of Montmartre overlooking Paris. Together, the small group pronounced vows of chastity, poverty, obedience to the Pope and a desire to share their faith abroad.
One student was Francis Xavier, 28. He grew up in the Xavier royal castle in Navarre, northern Spain. When Francis was a boy, Navarre was invaded by King Ferdinand of Aragon and Castile, and the small kingdom was conquered.
Francis Xavier was sent to study at the University of Paris. He shared accommodation with a friend, Peter Favre, and another student, Ignatius of Loyola. Over the next five years, they became close friends.
Ignatius Loyola, 43, led the small group. He was a priest and theologian who had been wounded as a Captain in the Spanish military.
While rooming together, Loyola had tried to convince Francis Xavier to join him in his mission to share the gospel abroad. Xavier was initially hesitant but eventually was drawn by the message of hope.
The seven friends called themselves the Compañía de Jesús because they felt they were placed together by Christ. The name ‘company’ also reflected Ignatius’ background in the army, and the Spanish ‘company’ would be translated into Latin as societas. From this came ‘Society of Jesus’, popularly known as the Jesuits.
Along with his seven friends, Xavier was ordained in Venice, 1537, and spent years trying to gain passage to the Holy Land, while caring for the sick throughout Italy.
In 1539, Ignatius made a formal plan for their new religious order, the Society of Jesus. Ignatius’s plan for the order was finally approved by Pope Paul III in 1540.
Francis Xavier became the first Jesuit missionary in 1541 when he travelled to India. He had just turned 35, and spent the next year living with impoverished pearl fishers in Goa, on the west coast. In the years following, he baptised thousands of people, travelling throughout modern Indonesia, Malaysia and Japan. For this reason, the Church calls St Francis Xavier ‘the Apostle to the Indies’ and ‘the Apostle of Japan.’
He was particularly fond of Japan, writing, ‘the people whom we have met so far, are the best who have yet been discovered, and it seems to me that we shall never find among heathens another race to equal the Japanese. It is a people of very good manners, good in general, and not malicious; they are men of honour to a marvel, and prize honour above all else in the world.’
In his bearing with people, Francis Xavier was gentle and loving, and undaunted in his determination to evangelise. Wherever he went, Xavier acted out the gospel message by living with the poorest people, eating what they ate, and sharing their lodgings. Continuously, he ministered to the sick and the poor, particularly to lepers. And because of his words and actions, many thousands came to know Christ.
In a letter to his Jesuit friends in Rome, he wrote, ‘as to the numbers who become Christians, you may understand them from this, that it often happens to me to be hardly able to use my hands from the fatigue of baptizing: often in a single day I have baptized whole villages. Sometimes I have lost my voice and strength altogether with repeating, again and again, the Credo and the other forms.’
Xavier believed that the only reason more people were not Christian was the lack of available missionaries. ‘Many, many people hereabouts are not becoming Christians for one reason only: there is nobody to make them Christians,’ he wrote, expressing a desire to tour the universities of Europe and encourage students to abandon earthly ambitions, as he had done, and ‘to meditate on spiritual realities, to listen actively to what God is saying to them. They would forget their own desires, their human affairs, and give themselves over entirely to God's will. They would cry out with all their heart: Lord, I am here! What do you want me to do? Send me anywhere you like – even to India.’
Xavier was the first Christian missionary to venture into Japan and many parts of Asia. And for the next 45 years, the Jesuits were the only missionaries on the Asian continent.
Francis Xavier is recognised now for his missionary practice, emphasising that missionaries should live amongst the people, and adapt to local customs and languages. And that for the mission to be successful in the long term, it needed educated native clergy.
Even before his death, Francis Xavier was considered a saint, and many churches all over the world, often founded by Jesuits, have been named in his honour. Scholars estimate the number of people converted to Christianity and baptised by Francis Xavier to have been around 30,000 and the areas he evangelised in have remained Catholic to the present day.
He and Saint Thérèse of Lisieux were declared co-patrons of the missions in 1925.
Melbourne Catholic11 February 2021