St. Francis Xavier, Jesuit, Apostle of the Indies, Patron of the Missions
One change of plans…
Forged in the fire of the Spiritual Exercises given to him by a master and friend, Fr. Francisco de Jasso (1506-1552) – or Francis Xavier, as he would be remembered – was a different man from the young aristocrat who had set off to Paris to study. The son of the king’s privy counselor, born in the castle of Javier (Xavier, in the Basque language), young Francis had had other plans. He had dreamed of worldly success, and looked on his new college roommate, the fellow Basque Iñigo – or Ignatius – López de Loyola with some degree of scorn. When Ignatius spoke to Francis and their third roommate, Peter Faber, about following the Lord, Peter listened, but Francis responded sarcastically, a protective wall around his heart.
Yet something in Ignatius was truer and simpler than that wall of defense. It took time, but the words of the gospel spoken through his roommate penetrated Francis’ heart: “What does it profit a man….?” The defenses crumbled, and the nobleman from a mighty castle was conquered. He became a priest, taking vows with Ignatius, Peter and four others – the nucleus of what would become the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits. After vows came the Exercises, where he learned to listen to God. His dross purified, he was ready. For what? Anything at all.
…and then another
What came, came almost by chance. The King of Portugal asked for two Jesuits for the Portugese colonies in India, where reports of the colonists’ lives were less than edifying. Ignatius chose Simon Rodriguez and Nicholas Bobadilla, but as their departure drew near, Bobadilla fell ill. Ignatius called Francis: Fr. Bobadilla can’t go, he explained, will you go in his place? “Of course, right away!” Francis replied. He meant that literally. He bid farewell to the friend who had become as a father to him. Pausing for only a day to repair an old pair of pants, he departed.
After a 13-month voyage, Francis landed in Goa in 1542. The nobleman had become a missionary thousands of miles from his brothers. He began ministering to the sick and to uncatechized children. From there he went to India, to pearl fishermen who had been baptized but had never received pastoral care. Soon people from other towns came asking for baptism. In Travancore, he baptized 10,000 people in a month, until his arm went numb and he lost his voice from the amount of instruction he gave.
After providing for the care of these people and for the education of a native clergy, Francis sailed to present-day Indonesia. There he met a Japanese man, Anjiro, who came to him for counsel and accepted baptism. Through this catechumen, Francis discovered a land of “wholly reasonable people” who could be open to the gospel. In 1549, Francis sailed for Japan, where he spent a year studying the difficult language. He never mastered it, yet he planted the seed of a small local church that would take deep root, producing hundreds of martyrs in the coming persecution.
Francis dreamed further. “How can Christianity be true if China had never heard of it?,” the Japanese asked him. He understood where he needed to go. He never arrived, however. In 1552, on Shangchuan Island, off the coast of China, the 46 year-old Francis Xavier fell ill and died
A beloved son and father
Letters between Europe and Asia took a year to arrive, so when Ignatius wrote recalling Fr. Francis to Europe six months later, he did not know that Francis had died. He would hear of his exploits only piecemeal. But he had letters full of the deep communion that bound Francis to his brother Jesuits and to his spiritual father. He had been half a world away, yet they had been one. That unity had been the fire behind the 30,000 baptisms attributed to Francis Xavier, the unending travels and exhausting labor.
“Entirely yours, without my being able to forget you, ever at any time, Ignatius,” Ignatius had signed one of his letters before sending it on a voyage around the world. The missionary, who surely felt his distance from his brothers, confessed to reading these words in tears. “Dear father of my soul … while kneeling on the ground I write this … [I ask] you to commend me earnestly to our Lord in your … prayers, that he may grant me to know his holy will … and grace to fulfill it perfectly.” Francis Xavier remained in that holy will. It made him a beloved son, and a father to tens of thousands.