Patron of the Missions
Saint Francis Xavier — 1506-1552
Francis Xavier, one of the First companions of Ignatius of Loyola, was to become one of the greatest missionaries in the history of the Church. His major achievement was to consolidate and spread the Christian faith in India and in the Moluccas of the Indonesian archipelago, and to introduce Christianity to the islands of Japan.
Francis Xavier was born on 7 April 1506 in Navarre, Spain. During his university studies in Paris, he met Ignatius, a Basque nobleman from Loyola. In due course, Francis Xavier and a little band of university students gathered around Ignatius, forming the nucleus of a new religious order, the Society of Jesus. After securing his degree as a distinguished student, Francis Xavier worked as a college professor for a short while before proceeding to Italy. Together with Ignatius he was ordained a priest on 24 June 1534 in Venice and served as secretary to Ignatius in Rome. In answer to a request made by King John II of Portugal to Ignatius, Francis Xavier was sent to India to preach the Gospel.
He sailed from Lisbon on 7 April 1541 and reached Goa on 6 May 1542. He was not an ordinary missionary but also a ‘Papal Representative’ invested with a series of faculties to carry out his mission. Besides, he was the representative qf the King of Portugal, armed with considerable powers, and with the right to correspond directly with the King.
By the time he had arrived in Goa, it had grown into a great city under Portuguese rule, with many churches and monasteries. He spent some months working in the area but it was not his business to settle down as a parish priest of Goa. He was soon called away to a much larger task in South India.
The Coromandel Coast in South India was Francis Xavier’s new field of work. Already in 1536 the entire fisher-folk community of perhaps 10,000 or more were baptised. These Catholics, poor, wholly illiterate and helpless, lived as scattered islands in the midst of a solidly Hindu population.
The real greatness of Francis Xavier’s work was that he had a miraculous gift of tongues. The evidence of his letters shows that in the three years that he spent on the coast, he never acquired more than a rudimentary' knowledge of Tamil, widely spoken in South India. He seems always to have had a wonderful capacity for attracting the young, especially children. In each village he would gather them around him. He taught them the Christian elements by heart, and then sent them to instruct the older people. He was always of the opinion that in missionary work it is children who offer the best returns for labour. Children in South India affectionately called him ‘Great Father’.
Xavier arrived in South India to find an untutored mob, and left behind him a Church in being. By the end of the century the Jesuits had gathered the Christians into sixteen large villages, in each of which a Jesuit Father was resident. Discipline was stern; on Sundays no ‘catamaran’ could go out to fish and a part of every Friday’s catch had to be contributed to the church. Moreover, in Travancore, in present-day Kerala, he baptised more than 10,000 people within a month.
In 1545 he sailed to Malacca, then by far the most considerable city in Malaya, for it served as the centre for the richest trade of the Far East. Xavier’s example of a simple, holy, and hardworking life gave him an irresistible power over the hearts of others, even non-Christians. From Malacca he proceeded to the Moluccas then known as the Spice Islands, where he was liked by Christians and Muslims alike. As for his missionary method, he composed songs telling of salvation history, arranged religious instruction courses and looked after the sick and the dying.
In 1549, Francis Xavier was appointed as the first Provincial of the Society of Jesus in Goa.
The prospect of introducing the Christian faith to Japan aroused Francis Xavier’s enthusiasm. Together with two other Spanish Jesuits, Frs. Cosmas de Torres and John Fernandez, and with Anjirō (Yajiro), a Japanese convert as interpreter, he arrived in Kagoshima on 15 August 1549. During the first stage of the mission, 100 people received baptism. A year later, he left these new converts in Anjirō’s care while he travelled to Kyoto, the capital of the empire. He was given permission to preach the faith and the number of Christians grew steadily to several hundred. From his discussion with the Buddhist clergy he gathered that Christianity would be more appealing if it entered Japan via China, as had previous spiritual and cultural innovations such as Buddhism and the writing system. Realising that the conversion of China would likewise be imitated by the Japanese, Francis Xavier left for China in 1551.
In the journey to China his health deteriorated and he caught a fever. He died on the small island of Sancian on 3 December 1552 before reaching the mainland. The body of Francis Xavier was given reverent burial on Sancian from where it was brought to Malacca on 22 March 1553 and later, still incorrupt, was brought to Goa, and became a centre of pilgrimage for all the East.
Francis Xavier laboured about ten years in the Orient, and of these, scarcely five were actually spent among new converts. The balance of his time was consumed in arduous voyages at sea, and endless waiting in the Portuguese settlements until the next opportunity to sail presented itself.
But in this brief span of time spent in indefatigable labours for the salvation of souls, Francis Xavier became the Apostle of India and Japan, and the great prototype of modern missionaries. He is the founder of the Jesuit missions in Asia, whose splendid development after his death is a result of his work.
As a missionary, Francis Xavier was always on fire. So all his life he was in a haste and might not stay. His food, besides being simple, was such as could be eaten in the least time. His sleep was usually restricted to a few hours in the middle of the night, and often interrupted by his prayers.
Moreover, to a passionate but disciplined nature, profound devotion and an eager longing for the salvation of souls, Francis Xavier added the whole outlook of the Statesman and the capacity of the strategist for organisation on a large scale. Like an experienced Field Marshal he stationed his soldiers at the most important posts.
He prompted the creation of a native Christian literature on the Fishery Coast in India and in Japan and laboured for the education of native catechists and priests. By means of regular reports to his superiors he provided the necessary contact of the missionaries with each other and with their headquarters at home. By exact coordination and military discipline, he converted his mission into a powerful organisation.
Little by little in India and Japan, he came to realise that it was pointless preaching the Gospel if it meant tearing up a people’s roots. He found that it was essential to penetrate the subtlest nuances of vocabulary and language and to respect a nation’s culture, tradition and soul for the success of his mission. He could also deal with cases that demanded subtle psychological insight. He saw the right line of approach, and pursued it with tact and patience until he got his man.
Above all, by his holy example he inspired his companions to sacrifice themselves heroically for the salvation of souls. His counsels were replete with prudence. During his lifetime he was highly esteemed for the holiness of his life.
Francis Xavier was beatified by Pope Paul V on 25 October 1619. Three years later, he was canonised by Pope Gregory XV on 12 March 1622, together with Ignatius of Loyola, Theresa of Avila, Philip Neri and Isidore. In 1748, Pope Benedict XIV solemnly declared St. Francis Xavier as Patron of the Orient. In 1904, Pope Pius X proclaimed him Patron of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. In 1927, Pope Pius XI proclaimed him, together with Theresa of the Child Jesus, Patron of the Missions.
The apostolic labours of Saint Francis Xavier, the founding of the Congregation of ‘Propaganda Fide’ by Pope Gregory XV in 1622, and the directives for missionaries to respect and appreciate local cultures all contributed to achieving more results for the evangelising mission of the Church in Asia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Ecclesia in Asia, 9).
Monsignor, Office Head, Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples
Weekly Edition in English
23 November 2018, page 11
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