December 2, 2017

St. Francis Xavier, Patron of Catholic Missions

Saint Francis Xavier

Memorial - December 3rd

(In 2017, this feast is superseded by the Sunday liturgy.)

Saint Francis Xavier is one of the great saints who emerged during the Counter-Reformation of the Catholic Church in the mid-16th and early 17th centuries. As a member of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), the zeal with which he undertook his missionary work was so astonishing that both contemporaries and historians alike have compared him to none other than St. Paul, the great apostle to the Gentiles.

He was born in Spanish Navarre on April 7, 1506. At the age of 19, he traveled to France to study at the University of Paris. There, he met and became friends with another Spaniard named Ignatius of Loyola. Ignatius, who had experienced a profound spiritual conversion years before, tried to convince Francis that his life might best be spent, not in academics, but as a missionary in service to Christ.

At first, Francis was not convinced of this, but Ignatius persisted and finally won him over. Together, they and five other like-minded young Jesuits made vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in a small chapel in Montmartre in August, 1534, as the founding members of the Society of Jesus. All seven were ordained to the priesthood in 1537. The Order was formally recognized by Pope Paul III in 1540.

Shortly afterward, the King of Portugal petitioned the pope for missionaries to be sent to Portuguese India; he feared, and rightly so, that the Christian values of the soldiers and fishermen there were being seriously compromised. Francis immediately surrendered his position as the Order's secretary  to undertake this work. In 1542, he traveled from Spain to Goa, India, where he began to preach and baptize throughout South India and Ceylon, now present-day Sri Lanka.

Wherever he went, Francis lived with the poorest of the poor, sharing their lives and whatever conditions they were forced to live in. He preached the faith, not merely with words, but through his ministry to the sick and destitute, particularly lepers. Even though he would be plagued by language problems, inadequate funds, and resistance from the Europeans who should have been supporting his efforts, Francis’ letters never revealed anything but a spirit of joy in his work.

In 1549, Francis commenced his most ambitious missionary endeavor to date. Traveling to Japan, he spent about a year struggling to learn enough Japanese to teach the people there the basics of the Christian faith. When he finally set out to preach, he was sometimes met with warmth, and sometimes with hostility. Despite difficulties, he was able to establish a church in that country that would, after his departure, continue to survive despite enduring great persecution.

Francis returned to Goa in 1551, and soon began to plan his next missionary journey to China. Although the leaders in China were very hostile to anyone proselytizing in their country, Francis had planned to enter secretly to begin his work. His dream was never realized, however; St. Francis Xavier died of a fever on the island of Sancian, just off the coast of China, on December 3, 1552.

Both he and St. Ignatius of Loyola were canonized by Pope Gregory XV in 1622.  With the exception of his right arm, St. Francis Xavier’s remains are enshrined in the Church of the Good Jesus in Goa, India. His arm, with which he is said to have baptized over 700,000 people in 10 years, now rests in the Jesuit Church in Rome. St. Francis Xavier is the patron of missionaries and the nation of Japan.

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