Saint Francis Xavier is known as the Apostle to the Indies. He was a 16th century Basque nobleman, one of the founding members of the Jesuit order, and famed as a missionary to Asia. He was active in the Portuguese-controlled port of Goa in India, in the East Indies, and in Japan and China. The number of baptisms attributed to his work number in at least the tens of thousands.
God is glorious in his saints!
Welcome to the Christian Saints Podcast. My name is dr Darren Ong, recording from Sepang in Malaysia. In this podcast, we explore the lives of the Christian saints, from the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Today, we commemorate Saint Francis Xavier, Apostle to the Indies. He is best known for being a missionary to Asia.
Francis was a Basque noble, born in 1506 in the Kingdom of Navarre (which, during his lifetime would be absorbed by Spain). He was one of the seven founding members of the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuit Order. We discuss the Jesuit order in more detail in our podcast episode about Saint Ignatius, the founder of the order. Saint Francis’ encounter with Saint Ignatius is a turning point of his life. They met when Saint Francis was a student at the Univerity of Paris. Let us read about this encounter from “A life of Saint Francis Xavier based on Authentic Sources” by M.T. Kelly
Inflated as he was by his own success at the Uni- versity of Paris, Francis Xavier did not conceal his contempt of the poverty and humility of Ignatius, ascribing both to a spirit of meanness, which he con- But Ignatius knew how to possess The more he was repulsed and by Xavier, the more he sought to gain his tinually ridiculed. his soul in patience. jeered at affection, so as to be able later to acquire this youthful friend for the service of God. He knew that his innate and genius rendered him capable of a better and higher life than anything offered by the world. Thus, with his marvellous knowledge of htmian nature, Ig- virtue natius ever strove to show his deep interest in every- thing that Xavier did, praising his lectures, procuring him him with money. This naturally appealed to Xavier's noble disposition, and by degrees he grew attached to Ignatius, a pity that Loyola should be so eccentric in his con- tempt of that worldly glory which at this period still dazzled Xavier's mind.
Gradu- ally he began to admire Ignatius and to ponder his advice. In the arguments they had together, nothing it more forcibly than Ignatius' frequent our Saviour's words, " What will it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul ? " ** Don Francesco," said Ignatius, " if this life were
the only one, if we lived merely to die and not to live
for eternity, I should acknowledge myself vanquished
by you. You are the wise man taking his ease to the
utmost in this world, seeking what you have not got ;
I am the fool advising you to throw aside even that
which you have. But if this brief span of life is no
more than a passage to another immortal and ever-
lasting existence, it is for you to measure them both, —
the one with eternity, the other with time. By the
proportion existing between a moment and an infinite
number of centuries, you can understand the difference
and see how necessary it is to provide for the one course
or the other. You weary yourself striving for earthly
happiness, which is brittle as glass, whereas you are
called to higher and more generous ideals. You have
not yet obtained the happiness for which you toil.
Why not labor for sometfiing worthy of paradise and
which will last for eternity? You say paradise and
eternity are not yet yours. But whoever wishes to
gain them, must struggle for them. Once yours, who
can deprive you of them? Worldly goods may fail
in course of time, decay by use, or be lost through mis-
fortune. Look at this world, which seems to you so
great, and you will find that all the good you may dis-
cover in it is only a drop in comparison with the joys
of eternity; all its beauty but a ray of feeble light
before a sun of immortal and everlasting beauty. O
Francis ! you are wise, and I leave it to yourself to de-
cide whether it be better to say now ' quid prodest ' to
the things of this world, than to enjoy them at the
risk of having to cry out that wretched ^ quid profuit *
which will be heard for all eternity from miserable
•souls in hell
Initially, Saint Francis Xavier felt called to the Holy Land, and in preparation spent some travel time in Venice. We read here from Butler’s Lives of the Saints about their time in Venice. (7:00)
When the time of the vacancy was come, in 1535, he performed St. Ignatius’s spiritual exercises: in which, such was his fervour, that he passed four days without taking any nourishment, and his mind was taken up day and night in the contemplation of heavenly things. By these meditations, which sunk deep into his soul, he was wholly changed into another man, in his desires, affections, and views; so that afterwards he did not know himself, and the humility of the cross appeared to him more amiable than all the glories of this world. In the most profound sentiments of compunction, he made a general confession, and formed a design of glorifying God by all possible means, and of employing his whole life for the salvation of souls. The course of philosophy which he read, and which had lasted three years and a half, according to the custom of those times, being completed, by the council of Ignatius, he entered on the study of divinity. In 1534, on the feast of the Assumption of our Lady, St. Ignatius, and his six companions, of whom Francis was one, made a vow at Montmartre to visit the Holy Land, and unite their labours for the conversion of the infidels; or, if this should be found not practicable, to cast themselves at the feet of the pope, and offer their services wherever he thought fit to employ them. Three others afterwards joined these six, and, having ended their studies the year following, these nine companions departed from Paris upon the 15th of November, in 1536, to go to Venice, where St. Ignatius had agreed to meet them from Spain. They travelled all through Germany on foot, loaded with their writings, in the midst of winter, which that year was very sharp and cold. Xavier, to overcome his passions, and punish himself for the vanity he had formerly taken in leaping, (for he was very active, and had been fond of such corporal exercises,) in the fervency of his soul, had tied his arms and thighs with little cords, which, by his travelling, swelled his thighs, and sunk so deep into the flesh as to be hardly visible. The saint bore the pain with incredible patience, till he fainted on the road; and, not being able to go any farther, was obliged to discover the reason. His companions carried him to the next town, where the surgeon declared that no incision could be safely made deep enough, and that the evil was incurable. In this melancholy situation, Faber, Laynez, and the rest spent that night in prayer; and the next morning Xavier found the cords broken out of the flesh. The holy company joined in acts of thanksgiving to the Almighty, and cheerfully pursued their journey, in which Xavier served the rest on all occasions, being always beforehand with them in the duties of charity. They arrived at Venice on the 8th of January, 1537, and were much comforted to meet there St. Ignatius, by whose direction they divided themselves to serve the poor in two hospitals in that city, whilst they waited for an opportunity to embark for Palestine.
Xavier, who was placed in the hospital of the incurables, employed the day in dressing the sores of the sick, in making their beds, and serving them in meaner offices, and passed whole nights in watching by them. It was his delight chiefly to attend those who were sick of contagious distempers, or infected with loathsome ulcers. Amongst these, one had an ulcer which was horrible to the sight, and the noisomeness of the stench was yet more insupportable. Every one shunned him, and Xavier found a great repugnance in himself when he first approached him. But, reflecting that the occasion of making a great sacrifice was too precious to be lost, he embraced the sick person, applied his mouth to the ulcer, and sucked out the purulent matter. At the same moment his repugnance vanished; and, by this signal victory over himself, he obtained the grace that, from that time, no ulcers, how filthy and fetid soever, caused in him any loathing, but rather a sweet devotion: of so great importance it is to us once to have thoroughly overcome ourselves, and overthrown the proud giant of sensuality, or vanity; whilst remiss acts, performed with sloth, unwillingness, and a false delicacy, rather fortify than vanquish the enemy. And it is more the resolution of the will than the action itself that subdues him. Two months had passed away in these exercises of charity, when St. Ignatius, who stayed behind alone at Venice, sent his companions to Rome, to ask the blessing of his holiness Paul III. for their intended voyage. The pope granted those among them, who were not in holy orders, a license to receive them at the hands of any Catholic bishop. Upon their return to Venice, Xavier was ordained priest upon St. John Baptist’s day, in 1537, and they all made vows of chastity and poverty before the pope’s nuncio.
SFX’s desire to preach in the Holy Land did not come to fruition however. Instead, he was sent by the Portuguese king to work in the Portugues Possessions in Asia. The most important of these possessions was the Indian port city of Goa. Where the need was great for a man of God to strengthen the church. We read again from Butler, about the wretched situation in the city.
they landed at Goa on the 6th of May, in 1542, in the thirteenth month since their setting out from Lisbon. After St. Francis had landed, he went immediately to the hospital, and there took his lodging: but would not enter upon his missionary functions till he had paid his respects to the Bishop of Goa, 1 whose name was John d’Albuquerque, and who was a most virtuous prelate. The saint presented to him the briefs of Paul III. declared that he pretended not to use them without his approbation, and, casting himself at his feet, begged his blessing. The bishop was struck with the venerable air of sanctity that appeared in his countenance and deportment, raised him up, kissed the briefs, and promised to support him by his episcopal authority: which he failed not to do. To call down the blessing of heaven on his labours, St. Francis consecrated most of the night to prayer. The situation in which religion then was in those parts, was such as called forth his zeal and his tears. Among the Portuguese, revenge, ambition, avarice, usury, and debauchery, seemed to have extinguished in many the sentiments of their holy religion; the sacraments were neglected: there were not four preachers in all the Indies: nor any priests without the walls of Goa. The bishop’s exhortations and threats were despised, and no dam was sufficient to stem such a deluge.
It was in Goa that Francis’ mission work was the most successful. By his deidcation, his good conduct and by the grace of God, he was able to strengthen the faith of the Portuguese population there, and bring the gospel to the Indians. We read of his ministry from M.T. Kelly’s biography:
As soon as Francis had attended to the physical and
spiritual needs of the sick, he set out to visit the leper
hospital in the suburbs, bringing the alms he had
begged from door to door for these miserable outcasts.
He gave them religious instruction, consoled them in
their sufferings, and on Sundays and holy days said
Mass for them and gave them Communion. When
this daily visit was over, the Apostle returned to the
city and proceeded to go through the prisons, real
siiJcs of iniquity, where he entered as an angel of light
to bring unhappy souls to repentance. He also per-
suaded the Viceroy to inspect the hospitals and prisons
once a week ; — a practice which King John took care
to recommend to the next Viceroy, Joam de Castro.*
Aware that if any lasting amendment was to be made
in the wicked town of Goa, the work of conversion
must begin with the children, Francis, on leaving, the
prisons, used to walk through streets and squares ring-
ing a bell and calling aloud: "Faithful Christian
friends of Jesus Christ, for the love of God, send your
boys and girls and your slaves of both sexes to hear
the catechism of Christian doctrine." These words
were written down by Father Lucena, who deposed
that, at this time, Francis also composed a small cate-
chism.^ When the crowd assembled, he first cate-
chised the children and then preached to the adults in
the open air, as we read in the Life written by Father
de Guzman, S J., in the i6th century. In his letters
to Ignatius he says that he took the children, often
300 in number, into the Church of our Lady of the
Rosary, near the hospital, to teach them their prayers
and the commandments of God, and that the Bishop
ordered the priests of Goa to do the same in all their
churches, so that the result surpassed all that could
have been expected.®
In a short time the hitherto unruly children under
Xavier's instruction acquired the virtues of modesty
and piety, and their reformation acted as a silent ad-
monition to their depraved families. Occasionally
one of these little converts protested against the crimes
he witnessed, in such a way as to abash the most
hardened ruffians. In order to impress the truths of
faith upon the volatile minds of his small hearers,
Francis bethought himself of setting his simple cate-
chism to musical airs, which he sang and taught to the
children, making them sing in chorus. This novel
system became so popular that both children and slaves
got into the habit of singing the catechism. This odd
custom has lasted to the present day. When Francis
appeared in the streets with his bell, not only children
and slaves, but whole families of men and women,
Portuguese and natives, ran to hear him. On Sundays
and feasts the Apostle preached in the morning, before
the Viceroy, to the colonists. He often reproved their
vices, and his eloquent words exercised a wonderful
effect upon the congregation, melting hardened hearts
like wax, says the old biographer, and bringing
thousands to repentance. In the evening he addressed
himself to the native Christians upon some article of
the faith, and often repeated the chief prayers and the
ten commandments. In these sermons to crowds of
Indian Christians and pagans, Francis used the de-
based dialect of Portuguese mixed with Hindu and
Malayan words, which was generally spoken and un-
derstood by everybody in the East Indies. Later he
took care to study the vernacular usually employed in
Southern India, which in the course of ten years he
could speak fluently, according to the Licentiate, Joam
Vaz. This ecclesiastic, on his return to Lisbon, told
the Fathers of the Society that he had spent six months
with Francis, who always went barefooted, dressed in
an old ragged soutane and a kind of black stuff hood
as a protection from the sun. The Licentiate said that
Xavier was universally loved and was called "the
Great Father." From Goa, Father Lancilotti wrote to
Ignatius that Francis had captivated all hearts, and by
his sermons, his catechisms, and hearing confessions,
had gained a great name in this part of India
Saint Francis was also active in other parts of Asia, visiting Malacca, and various islands in the Indonesian archipelago. Also signficant was his work in Japan. We read again from M.T. Kelly’s biograpy: (23:10)
Though the Apostle and his
companions often made grammatical mistakes, thereby
exciting the hilarity of their hearers, still their holy
lives, so different from those of the Bonzes, did not
fail to impress the observant and intelligent Japanese,
who were compelled to admit the beauty of the Chris-
tian religion as practised by these missionaries. Not-
withstanding their many objections and pertinacious
contradiction of every argument, the people gradually
began to embrace the true faith. The most remark-
able of the conversions was due to the heroic self-con-
trol shown by Brother Joam Fernandez. One day
when he was preaching an insolent man spat in his
face. Fernandez wiped his cheek and continued as if
nothing had occurred. This appealed so forcibly to
the more educated spectators that one of them, a
learned man, who was a bitter opponent of the Chris-
tian religion, became a convert. His baptism led
the way to others, particularly that of a youthful but
almost blind genius, Lawrence, sumamed " the squint-
eyed.'* He had studied in the most famous schools of
Japan and entered the Society of Jesus as a lay-
brother ; for thirty years his discourses in Miyaco and
the adjoining States ^ converted numbers of the nobil-
ity, gentry, literati, and Samurai.
At this time Francis spoke Japanese like a native,
and also preached in Chinese to merchants of that na-
tion at Yamaguchi. The number of baptisms among
people of rank and education rose quickly to five hun-
dred, including many Bonzes, so that the bonzeries
were emptied; for the Bonzes who remained pagans,
finding it hard to get alms from the people, returned to
the world to work for their livelihood. The Saint was
ever at war with the Bonzes, and so much did he dis-
credit them that they were obliged to become traders
or soldiers, which made the Christians say that in a
short time there would be no more idolaters in Yamaguchi
Saint Francis Xavier would pass away in Shangchuan Island, in the Chinese province of Guangdong. After many years of missionary work all over asia. He was buried there for a time, and he was brought to Malacca and reburied there for a time, before eventually being sent to Goa in India. He is a huge influence among Catholics in this region. Several churches and instituions are named for him.
One of the most prominent is Xavier University in Cincinnati Ohio. Let us read a reflection on Saint Francis Xavier on the website of Xavier University. This was written by Debra Mooney PhD, chief mission officer at Xavier University: (22:50)
St. Xavier ranks among the greatest missionaries in Christian history. Historians place the number of baptisms at roughly 30,000 people; lore cites numbers up to 100,000. Today, such missionary accomplishments may be challenging to appreciate in light of present day plurality, cultural relativism, and global engagement, yet a great deal can be learned from Xavier in the way he conducted his life and work with meaning and purpose. Three qualities of Xavier are highlighted which are noteworthy in today's modern world.
Xavier was known to have conducted his life's work with great vitality and zeal. For instance, when Loyola asked Xavier to join an expedition to the Far East he was "overjoyed". Even descriptions of how he moved capture his gusto - "he walked with a joyful, calm face" and "everywhere he went he went with laughter in his mouth".
Much of the enthusiasm for his missionary work came from the support and prayers he was receiving from those that sent him and from the beauty from which he viewed his service. He was serving God and helping others. He was helping others by helping them to find God.
Xavier's enthusiasm is underscored when recognizing that his work and life were not easy. Seventeenth century sea voyages were filled with life-threatening dangers. Moreover, by the time Xavier finished University studies, his father, mother and a sister had died (his father had passed away when Xavier was only 6 years old) and his other sister and brothers had married. He felt as lonely as "an orphan". However, it was not only during this time that he felt this way. For much of his life he struggled with feelings of loneliness, depression and chronic feelings of inferiority.
His unlimited confidence in God freed him from discouragement in the face of obstacles and reverses. This confidence enabled him to travel through life with his sense of joy and enthusiasm. He lived his life with zeal for the Greater Glory of God. He wrote to a fellow Jesuits about his safe arrival after traveling, "In this life, we find our greatest comfort living in the midst of danger, that is, if we confront them solely for the love of God."
Xavier set high standards for himself and had ambitious plans for the future. He was a man of quick perception and sound judgment. And while he was fervent, he was known to be so without losing a realistic grasp of the facts. Yet, his goals were not to be "the best" or "first", but rather to make an impact. He was driven by a passion, and an internal energy. He passionately pursued extra-ordinary yet realistic challenges. What motivated Xavier to set high standards was his drive to help others in a way that he believed was beneficial to all persons on earth. Xavier conducted his work in the spirit of magis; a Latin term meaning "more" and used by Loyola to underscore good character in service to others.
Openness to the influence of others
The third quality is associated with Xavier's personality, including how he related to others as well as himself. It goes beyond enthusiasm and passion. Xavier was known to be a charismatic man. He had a "dashing and robust personality" and has been described as "astounding", "decisive", "cheerful", "vivacious", "practical", "prudent", and a "keen, ambitious" boy in school.
Today, he would be described as a "people person". He was successful because of his ability to mix easily with persons of various social-classes, races, and beliefs. Xavier understood people. He learned the languages and adopted the indigenous dress of the peoples he served. Xavier lived the beginning of "inculturation"; he had a deep sense of cross-cultural understanding, and appreciated that God's presence was already present in all cultures, peoples, places and things. His appreciation is noteworthy because it was not always true of his beliefs. It grew out of his experiences. Xavier was certainly not a flexible or passive individual. He was decisive and known to have the "fiery" personality and temperament of the Basque. Thus, Xavier's experience of cultural plurality was ultimately exhilarating, but initially frustrating, confusing and challenging.
While trying to unify the world under Christ, Xavier was discovering the depth and extent of differences. He learned that God was revealed within those differences. At first, differences were viewed as obstacles to his goal. Later, he discovered the variety and beauty of languages, faiths, cultures and living conditions. He began to feel and know God's work. He was transformed in his understanding of "difference" and "oneness". While his work had a profound influence on others, he came to recognize that he was equally influenced through the interactions and contacts. As former Superior General Fr. Peter Hans-Kolvenbach, S.J. stated, "When the heart is touch by direct contact, the mind may be challenged to change" (SCU, 2000).
These three qualities of St. Francis Xavier are reflected in a description of him written by a companion: I have never met anyone more filled with faith and hope, more open-minded than Francis. He never seems to lose his great joy and enthusiasm. He talks to both the good and the bad. Anything he is asked to do, Francis does willingly, simply because he loves everyone.
Saint Francis Xaiver is commemorated on the 3rd of December in the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches.
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Let us end this episode with this hymn, to Saint Francis Xavier commonly sung on his feast day;
Oh, Father Saint Francis, we kneel at thy feet,
While blessings and favors we beg and entreat,
That thou from thy bright throne in heaven above
Wouldst look on thy clients with pity and love.
Saint Francis Xavier, Oh pray for us!
Saint Francis Xavier, Oh pray for us!
Oh, Father Saint Francis, thy words were once strong
Against Satan’s wiles and an infidel throng.
Not less is thy might where in heaven thou art;
Oh, come to our aid, in our battle take part.
Saint Francis Xavier, Oh pray for us!
Saint Francis Xavier, Oh pray for us!