St. Francis Xavier

(1506-1552)

St. Paul the Apostle traveled the breadth of the Mediterranean world, to make known “the unfathomable riches of Christ.” The St. Paul of our modern world, who preached to three continents, was St. Francis Xavier. (Pronounced Zavier, by the way.)

A well-born native of Spain, Francis went to study in the great University of Paris. Whatever career he might have planned was all changed after he met there a Spanish fellow student named Ignatius of Loyola. The future St. Ignatius, fired with zeal to promote only the “greater glory of God,” persuaded Francis and a few others to vow themselves to this cause in 1534. They went to Italy in 1536; and in 1539 Pope Paul III accepted them as the pioneer members of a new religious order called the Company or Society of Jesus – we know them better as “the Jesuits”.

Ignatius, seeing in Francis a man whose administrative skill matched his zeal, picked him in 1540 to carry the gospel to India and the Far East. Xavier went to Portugal and on April 7, 1541, with the title of papal ambassador, he set out for Asia. The little Portuguese fleet had to sail all the way around Africa, so the trip to India took 13 months! Father Francis kept busy on shipboard as chaplain, teacher, arbitrator and sometimes nurse of the crews.

When he reached Goa, India, in May, 1542, Xavier found that the Portuguese who had settled there in 1510 had given anything but Christian example to the Indians. He had to rechristianize these Europeans – a long task.

But he also began to preach to the Indians themselves. He would go through the crowded streets ringing a handbell to summon the children and the mistreated slaves to religious instructions. Naturally of sweet character, he won a large following by his strict morality and his attention to the lepers and the other sick. One of his teaching methods was to set Christian doctrinal statements to popular tunes that the people loved to sing.

From the Indians around Goa, St. Francis turned to the Paravas along India’s southwest coast. Approaching these impoverished people as a devotee of religious poverty, he won thousands to Christianity, and his arm even grew weary baptizing their throngs of converts. On the other hand, when he preached to the proud upper-caste Brahmans, it took him a whole year to convert just one person! Despite his large success, Francis had much to suffer from both Portuguese and pagans.

But India was only his first step. In 1545 he went east to the Portuguese port of Malacca on the Malay Peninsula. Here he preached for three years before returning to India to see how his school and missions were faring.

While at Malacca, Francis had heard about Japan. That was his next goal. In 1549 he set out with two other priests and three Japanese converts. Reaching Japan, he labored in its southern part for over two years. When he left for Goa, the number of Japanese Christians had risen to 2,000.

In Japan Xavier had come to realize that Japanese culture owed very much to China. He therefore determined to go next to the Chinese mainland. By now the head of all the Jesuits in the far east, St. Francis set out eagerly on this new mission trip.

Political red tape complicated his journey, and Divine Providence itself prevented him from achieving his goal. In late August 1552 he reached the lonely Chinese island of Sancian, just off the coast near Canton. There he had to await transportation to the mainland, which was visible from where he had disembarked. But at Sancian he was stricken with a heavy fever. Now alone, with the exception of one Chinese, one Portuguese and two slaves, Francis died on December 3, 1552, aged only 46. Two months later his body was disinterred and found still incorrupt. It was taken back to Goa where it still remains enshrined.

Francis Xavier was declared a saint in 1622 along with St. Ignatius of Loyola. He deserved sainthood for his epic effort as a latter-day St. Paul to carry the good news “even to the ends of the earth”.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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