St. Francis Xavier: Fearless Missionary for Christ

Today, December 3rd, is the feast day, and has been now for three hundred and fifty six years, of St. Francis Xavier. The sheer magnitude of the enterprise he undertook for the love of Christ staggers the imagination and captures the admiration of men. The time has come for a Jesuit commercial.

He was a Basque by birth, from Navarre, in the part of Spain bordering on the Pyrenees and France. In the late 1520s he was a student at the University of Paris, ambitious for glory on earth, not the least interested in sanctity or the service of Christ. But there came limping into his life another Basque, Ignatius from Loyola, older than he, already well on his way to that heroic sanctity that characterized his mature years.

What Ignatius discerned in Francis at that stage to make him worth a siege lasting nearly three years is hidden from us. But deep calls to deep and a great heart is quick to recognize its fellow, even under veils.

Xavier’s dreams had been his own dreams—success, fame, the credit of a great name on earth. One breach after another Ignatius the patient besieger made in Francis’ defenses. Ignatius bided his time, watched for a sortie of pride, and then flung his question: “Francis, what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul?” One day the ambitions of Francis Xavier returned reversed, ambitions now not for himself but for the glory of Christ, Our Lord, and on that day all the bells of heaven rang.

Five others, devout men and zealous, joined themselves to Ignatius and Xavier and the seven pronounced vows at Montmartre in August, 1534. In 1540 when their numbers had grown to some thirteen and Ignatius had drawn up constitutions, Pope Paul III formally approved the Society of Jesus as a religious order existing in the Church.

The following year King John of Portugal requested of Ignatius to send a papal legate to Portugal’s new empire in India. Xavier was the man and on April 7th, 1541, his thirty-fifth birthday, he sailed from Lisbon. There began then a decade of the most courageous and tireless missionary enterprise this world has ever seen.

On shipboard and in the harbors, never for a minute did Xavier leave off hearing confessions, teaching Christian doctrine, tending the sick, and all this in joy.

He was a man consumed with a divine impatience, a saint in a hurry. Sometimes he has been accused of restlessness, but God knows, as he would say himself, that his vagabondage was not due to an itch for change or a desire for more interesting labors. He “must go to open doors,” he said, and God knows too what each door cost him in privation and suffering. If he spent only five months in Goa when he first arrived there, they were at any rate months never to be forgotten by the sick, the poor, the slaves, the outcasts the half-baked converts from heathenism among whom he labored day and night.

During his decade in the East, Xavier’s trademark was his bell. In the city’s churches he preached in Portuguese, itself a foreign tongue to him, but apart from that his worst trouble was the language. He would have someone translate the prayers and commandments for him into Tamil, or whatever. Then in his own words “. . . when I had them fixed in my memory, I went through the whole place with my bell in my hand, gathering all the boys and men that I could, and teaching them twice a day for a month.” Xavier has been falsely credited with the gift of tongues, and one can understand why, but one might also wonder if that month’s toil were not itself a lovelier miracle than any gift of tongues would have been.

“So great is the multitude which turns to the faith in this land where I wander,” he wrote to St. Ignatius, “that often my arms are weary with baptizing, and I have no voice left through so frequently reciting the creed and the commandments.” A short while later his arms must have been almost paralyzed, for up and down the dreary, inhospitable land of Tranvacore he baptized in the course of a single month more than 10,000 persons. Taking a twelve hour day, that would have been about one baptism every two minutes for thirty days consecutively.

Beyond India, Malacca beckoned, and beyond Malacca, the Moluccas and the Spice Islands. Three of his brethren came to take up his burden in India,, so by September, 1545, he had crossed two thousand miles of perilous seas to his goal. There he labored in his usual style in the city of Malacca, chiefly among the Portuguese colonists who needed converting no less than did the native Malays. From there it was to the jungles of Amboina and the Moro Islands, from which he was not to be deterred by the consideration that the islanders were head-hunters.

In the spring of 1547 it was back to Malacca, and there he first heard of Japan, where the name of Christ was altogether unknown and no word of the gospel yet preached, where, in fact, no European had as yet penetrated. In April, 1549, he left from Goa on his six thousand mile voyage to Japan, knowing, of course, not a word of Japanese. His years there were, in one word, disappointment.

“In Cape Comorin,” as one of his fellow Jesuits expressed it, “he had fished with a net, but in Japan he was obliged to fish with a line.” He was persecuted by the rulers, the people, the children, the weather. In all, Japan was heartbreak. In mid-November, 1551, he sailed from Japan, leaving behind after about two and a half years labor there in Kagoshima, Ichiu, Tamaguchi, Hirado, Fuiami, no more than 2,000 Christians, very few out of a population of some 15 million. God, however, does not count by numbers and from this little flock at a later time came one of the Church’s greatest regiments of its white robed army of martyrs.

India, the East Indies, the Spice Islands, Japan: all this was not big enough for his great heart. There was still China. To enter China in those days, he would have to be smuggled in. In the late summer of 1552 he reached the smuggler’s paradise of San Cian, a barren and empty island off the Cantonese coast. He waited there until he found a Chinese trader who agreed to smuggle him into the mainland. The day was set for November 19th.

That day dawned. His books and his little bundle of clothes beside him, Francis waited, watching the shore. Hour after hour he waited. There was nothing to see, not a sign of the brown sail he had hoped for. Then he knew that China had beaten him, and the poor body, so long driven by the dauntless spirit, took its revenge. At that moment, he fell ill. A fortnight later, the night of December 2, 1552, he was dead, forty-six years and seven months old. He whose hand had been raised in absolution countless times died without a priest within a thousand miles of him and was buried without ceremony in a deserted island in unhallowed ground.

Just seventy years later on March 12th, Pope Gregory XV raised to the altars the two who were such fast friends on earth—Ignatius and Xavier. Pope Pius X declared St. Francis patron of the Propagation of the Faith and of all Catholic missions.

In all he voyaged some 75,000 miles, three circumnavigations of the globe. He spent a total of two full years on shipboard, and we are not talking about the Queen Mary. The distance from Goa to Cape Comorin is roughly New York to Miami. Xavier travelled it thirteen times, either on foot or in those rickety, leaky, creaking tubs that passed for boats in those climes.

If we expect Francis to provide us with a diary of his voyaging, we do not know him at all. He had his own interests, but they were centered so exclusively on men’s souls that in his 127 extant letters, written close by jungles and perilous seas, not a single elephant trumpets, not a tiger roars, not a shark shows a fin. His letters are marked by scrambled grammar, atrocious spelling, boring repetitions, and thoughts that burn like flames. In all there shines forth the portrait of the most beautiful thing under heaven, the totally unselfish man.

image: A Japanese depiction of Francis Xavier, dated to the 17th century. From the Kobe City Museum collection. via Wikimedia Commons. 

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Thomas Aquinas McGovern, S.J. was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1938, when he was thirty years old. A graduate of the Université Laval in Quebec, he taught at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., and later at Thomas Aquinas College in California, where he served on the faculty from early 1972 until his death on February 19, 1985. His sermons for the Feasts and Seasons of the year were recently published by Thomas Aquinas College as Selected Sermons of Thomas Aquinas McGovern, S.J. Edited by Suzie Andres, they feature a foreword by the late Ronald P. McArthur, who said of them, “I think his are the best sermons you can read now…I can’t believe that Chrysostom and the Fathers of the Church have written better.”

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