Dec 3, 2014
This was not the plan. Not the human plan. Xavier, the gifted, debonair hidalgo-turned-Jesuit was destined for great things. At forty-six years of age, exhausted from serving others, he died on an island off the mainland of China thousands of miles away from his community.
Xavier, the nobleman, who was unused to roughing it, became the greatest itinerant missionary-saint in history, second only to St. Paul of Tarsus. Such are the strange but wonderful ways of Providence to fulfill the divine plan.
For the Greater Glory of God
From his young years at the Javier castle in Navarre, Francis excelled in high-jumping. As a student at the University of Paris, he cut a handsome figure in his stylish clothes, and his extroverted personality won him friends. He and his chums were more attracted to the night life of the Latin Quarter than they were to studies.
Francis roomed with Juan de la Pena, an instructor, Peter Faber, the gentle Savoyard, and a middle-aged fellow Basque, Ignatius Loyola, a former soldier, reputed to be a religious oddity. Xavier avoided Ignatius and even scoffed at him in public. Ignatius warned him about his excesses even as he loaned him money to feed them.
In 1530 with licentiate degree in hand, Francis took a teaching post at the College of Beauvais at the University. Ignatius, with his religious project in mind, had already won over Faber to it. During the latter’s home visit, Ignatius broke through Francis’ facade and gained a second recruit and a friend. Francis went through the Spiritual Exercises and emerged from them on fire with apostolic zeal.
“Francis, This Is Your Mission.”
In March 1539 even before the newly-formed Company of Jesus was canonically approved by Paul III, King John III of Portugal requested that two of the small group be sent as missionaries to the Portugese colony of Goa. Simon Rodriguez and Nicholas Bobadilla, both Portugese, were slated for the mission, but when the latter fell ill, there was no one else to send except Francis. He had overworked himself in various Italian towns and was, at this time, recuperating from burn-out and doing clerical work. When Ignatius called him in and broke the news that due to the circumstances, ‘This was his enterprise,’ Francis responded, “Good enough! I am ready!” His ready willingness astounds even the most generous soul, given the fact that with these words, Xavier’s life was forever changed.
He hastily darned some clothing, received the pope’s blessing, bade farewell to his companions, and left Rome the next day. He took with him his breviary, a copy of the Spiritual Exercises, and a treatise by the Croatian Christian humanist, Marko Marulic, De institutione bene vivendi per exempli sanctorum.
India and the Pearl Fishery Coast (1542-1549)
In 1542 at age thirty-five, his ship arrived in Goa after a seasick journey. Appalled at the religious conditions among the Portuguese, he made the well-run hospital there the center of his activities. At the Cormorin region at the southern tip of India, thirty-thousand people lived in fishing villages along the coastline. About two-thirds of them were nominal Christians but had received no religious education. The remaining villagers were Paravas, one of the lowest of the Hindu castes.
The first thing Francis did was to learn the rudiments of Tamil. Under his supervision, two companions translated the basic Christian prayers, and he memorized them by rote. Francis had no ear for foreign languages, but when he preached, it hardly mattered. The sheer force of his personality made up for this disadvantage. In fact, when preaching, crucifix in hand, Francis could speak to people of about thirty dialects at one time and be understood without a translator. This gift however did not apply apart from his preaching.
Cures Attributed to Xavier
Francis set up a daily schedule which he followed everywhere. After his morning prayer, reading the breviary and saying Mass, he attended to baptisms or funerals of children and adults. Soon Christians and Paravas begged him to visit them and pray over the sick. Miraculous cures had been attributed to him, and word spread fast. In private letters to Ignatius, Francis does tell him about the gift of tongues and miracles. He came to be known as “the Holy Father,” and the Brahmans feared and disliked him. Francis however taught and baptized one of them.
Francis taught the people to sing the Catholic truths and would often dramatize a lesson. At midmorning, he went up and down the streets ringing a little bell and called the children and others to instruction. He sang the lessons in rhyme to fix the instruction in their memories. The melodies chosen, whether from his childhood or from the indigenous ragas, were easy to sing. He returned to each point and explained it. He was a born educator.
While his servant prepared his meal, Francis again prayed and, after dinner, took a rest. Early in the evening, he met with those who wished to speak with him. At the end of his work day, he withdrew to a lonely spot to pray.
Francis ate what little his stomach could endure. Among the poor fishers, there was no meat, no bread, no grape wine. The staples were rice, fish, and milk. He slept little on the bare earth or a wooden frame fitted with a coconut-fiber net and a hard pillow without sheets or covering. Sometimes he relaxed with the natives.
Once a week the adults would gather for two hours of worship and instruction. Women came on Saturday, men on Sunday. Before he left a village after a month or so, he left the community a copy of his catechism which was written on palm leaves. He told a leader to copy out the prayers, and he appointed another leader to assemble the people on Sundays. When he returned to the village, he would examine the children on how much they knew. He grew to love these people, and they him. They followed him everywhere. In 1546, twelve Jesuits were sent to help Xavier.
After spending two years on the fishery coast, Francis traveled from one island to another. He catechized the people as he did along the fishery coast, and he undertook some administrative work. He taught the natives, counseled European merchants, sailors, and colonists, and settled disputes. More help came, and the Jesuits opened schools throughout the Portuguese-owned region. While in India, Francis catechized a Japanese man named Anjiro who sparked in Francis the desire to sail for Japan.
Francis arrived in Japan in April 1549 at a time of civil unrest. When dignitaries he visited strongly resisted his direct appeal to preach Christianity there, his vision began to fade. Japanese culture valued subtlety, refinement, honor, and reason. With sudden clarity, Francis realized that his approach with them had to change. Doing an about-face, he put on fine clothes, attended tea ceremonies, brought gifts - even chiming clocks - to dignitaries, and conversed indirectly about faith. Adaptation was the key that opened the door for his new ministry, and Francis found someone to translate the Christian scriptures into Japanese. He grew to love the Japanese people, and he worked in Japan for two years winning about two thousand converts.
The Plan to Enter China
Francis had heard that the Chinese, on whom the Japanese were culturally dependent, were eager for western knowledge. Here was another opportunity to do more. He returned to Goa until the end of February 1552 to make immediate plans for his next mission. During the last week in August 1552, Francis reached the island of Sancian off the mainland of China. He tried to arrange entry into the country, but on November 21, 1552, a fever gripped him. Two weeks later on December 3rd, he died on the island at the age of forty-six. After two months, his body was found to be incorrupt and fresh. It was taken to Goa and there enshrined in the Church of the Good Jesus. In 1622, he and Ignatius were canonized: two Basques, two kindred souls. In 1927, St. Francis Xavier was proclaimed patron of the missions; St. Thérèse of Lisieux shares the title.
The Power of One
The high-jumping of Francis the youth was superseded by even higher feats: traveling thousands of miles to the Indies and Japan to bring the Catholic faith there, all in ten years. Then there were the reports of miracles and the gift of tongues. His zeal for souls leaves one speechless. Theodore Maynard observes that “it was impossible to talk with Francis and not be conscious of his charm. It was also impossible to talk with Francis without knowing that he was a man of God.” On one occasion, a Portuguese dignitary revealed that, on experiencing the power that went out from Xavier, he knew for the first time what it meant to be a Christian.
Ignatius once noted that Francis was the “lumpiest dough he had ever kneaded.” We can agree that it was stretched to its limit and took on an exquisite sheen.
(Much of the material in this essay is taken from James Brodrick, Saint Francis Xavier and Georg Schurhammer, Francis Xavier, His Life, His Time.)