On the liturgical feast of the saint of all missions
On 14 September 2012 St Francis Xavier once again left Rome to consolidate and spread the faith among the peoples of the East. It was not of course the saint himself — who died in 1552 and is buried in Goa — but the famous relic, his arm, which has been kept in the Church of the Gesù, Rome, since 1614. This time the great Jesuit missionary did not make his way to India or Japan, but to Australia: a country that he never visited and where he stayed for about three months, until 3 December, the day of his liturgical feast.
The idea of the pilgrimage in the context of the celebrations for the Year of Faith was conceived of by Cardinal George Pell, Archbishop of Sydney, with the full support of all the country's dioceses and religious institutes and in the first place of the Society of Jesus. "Along with St Therese of the Child Jesus, St Francis Xavier has been a patron of Australia from the time of the erection of the hierarchy in 1842", the Cardinal recalled. "And it would be most fitting that the bodily presence of this well-loved and popular saint, and the graces that would be derived from his presence, could be made available to the people of Australian".
The pilgrimage of the relic of the missionary saint fits into the programme of the Year of Faith, delineated by Pope Benedict XVI in the Motu Proprio Porta Fidei: "One thing that will be of decisive importance in this Year", the Pontiff wrote, "is retracing the history of our faith" and "the unfathomable mystery of the interweaving of holiness and sin. While the former highlights the great contribution that men and women have made to the growth and development of the community through the witness of their lives". Indeed, "By faith, men and women have consecrated their lives to Christ, leaving all things behind so as to live obedience, poverty and chastity with Gospel simplicity''; and "by faith, countless Christians have promoted action for justice so as to put into practice the word of the Lord, who came to proclaim deliverance from oppression and a year of favour for all" (Porta Fidei, n. 13).
St Francis Xavier heroically personified this personal consecration, this tireless zeal for the faith which brings justice. The only Australian saint, St Mary of the Cross MacKillop (1842-1909), considered him her spiritual friend and thus holiness has traced a shining track through the history of salvation to our time.
Cardinal Pell considers Australia to be an ancient country but young in faith and, in many ways, still a mission country thirsting for a new evangelization. "The presence of St Francis Xavier, that great evangelizer of the non-European world of India and Asia, on the shores of Australia would be a wonderful and rare opportunity for prayer and catechesis . We realize just how unique his presence is in seeing not only the itinerary of his voyages — he was very close to Australia in 1546, when he crossed the Banda Sea — but also the pilgrimages of the relic of his arm. They appear to have begun in 1922, the third centenary of Xavier's canonization, and were at first limited to Europe because of the logistic problems of a voyage overseas. Until then Japan was the only country outside the cradle of Christianity that had the honour of receiving the blessing of the arm, in 1949, and again in 1999, years in which the Jubilee of the missionary saint's arrival there in 1549 was celebrated.
Australia was thus be the first country ever visited by this saint to welcome the relic of his arm with which he baptized and blessed thousands and thousands of people in Asia. And although the means of transport have been improved in the meantime, guaranteeing the safety of the outstanding relic during a threemonth-journey through 24 dioceses is something so complicated that such pilgrimages continue to be very rare.
Auxiliary Bishop Peter Andrew Comensoli of Sydney, who was in charge of organizing the journey, spent hours and hours ensuring that the relic would arrive in Australia in perfect condition and that everyone there would have an opportunity to venerate it. "The pilgrimage will provide one way in which Catholics, as well as other Christians, can participate in the Year of Faith. St Francis Xavier is both significant for Australians generally — his statue is in many Catholic churches and there are two cathedrals are named after him — and for the Jesuits, in particular", Bishop Comensoli said. "Even as I go around confirming our young Catholics, I am noticing that quite a number are choosing St Francis Xavier as their confirmation patron, so he remains a well-loved saint in our country. He remains one of the patrons of Catholic missions in Australia". The Bishop himself accompanied the relic from Rome to Sydney, giving Francis Xavier, so attached to holy poverty, the well-deserved opportunity to travel business-class for the first time in his life.
The news coming from various Australian dioceses, clearly shows how much the faithful are looking forward to the truly missionary visit of Francis Xavier. And how much his arm extended over them in blessing reminds them not only of his life, transformed by grace, but also of their life renewed in Baptism. The grace received from Xavier, like every grace, was expressed in action, in an unbelievable zeal in bringing Christ to others. "His evangelizing zeal" can be read on the website of the Diocese of Wollongong, "invites us to reconnect once more with our baptismal mission, to be evangelizers in our time and place... full of creativity, energy and courage".
In this context we cannot fail to remember the words of Blessed John Paul II to the missionaries gathered in Javier, Spain, in 1982, the birthplace of St Francis Xavier. Pope John Paul called him a "prototype of a missionary, driven by evangelical love. Indeed, his charity and his methods of evangelization, and his practical capacity for adaptation to places and cultures", the Pope emphasized, are a sure orientation for missionary work. St Francis Xavier "had the clear knowledge that faith is a gift of God, and based his trust on prayer.... He modelled his identity on the full acceptance of God's will and on communion with the Church and with her representatives, expressed in obedience and fidelity as a messenger, thanks to a subtle discernment. He always acted with a broad horizon, in harmony with the mission of the Church, the universal sacrament of salvation. He placed before proclamation and catechesis.... a holy life that stressed humility and total trust in Jesus Christ and in the Holy Mother of the Church" (Homily, 6 November 1982). The Catholic Church in Australia now awaits the moment when the patron saint of all missions will set foot in this land and extend his arm in blessing over the new evangelization of the country.
*Assistant to the Postulator General of the Society of Jesus