LAST SPRING, 40 pilgrims, with me serving as chaplain, crossed northern Spain
by motorbus. We had the good fortune to visit—in the following sequence—the shrines and birthplaces of four prominent Spanish saints: St. Teresa of
Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Ignatius Loyola and St. Francis Xavier.
I’m pleased to share these memories, reflections and photos so that readers can follow
our path across Spain and become better acquainted with these inspiring saints.
Teresa of Avila: Great Mystic and Carmelite Reformer
Approximately a half hour after passing
the great university town of Salamanca,
our bus rolled into the small city of
Alba de Tormes. The town’s principal
claim to fame is that St. Teresa of Avila
died here in 1582 at a Carmelite convent
she had founded 12 years earlier.
Aware that her health was failing,
Teresa decided to stop here on her way
back to Avila, the city of her birth (in
1515). Today, thousands of pilgrims
from all over the world converge on this
holy site to venerate her remains in an
ornate coffin high above the altar of the
Also of special interest to many visitors,
in an exposition room of the
adjoining convent, is the incorrupt heart
of St. Teresa. It can be viewed in a glass
receptacle set delicately amidst angelic
It is most appropriate that St. Teresa’s
heart is one of the central symbols of
this world-famous shrine. Indeed, visitors
will see Teresa’s heart being pierced by a spear in various
art forms, found both in this shrine
and in Avila. Teresa was a great mystic
who experienced many visions, raptures
and other favors flowing from
God’s infinite love.
This most celebrated ecstatic experience
of her life is described in her
own words in Chapter XXIX of her
classic work, The Autobiography of St.
Teresa of Avila:
“It pleased the Lord that I should
sometimes...see beside me...an angel...in
bodily form....He was not tall, but short,
and very beautiful, his face so aflame
that he appeared to be one of the highest
types of angels who seemed all
afire....In his hands I saw a long golden
spear and at the end of the iron tip I
seemed to see a point of fire. With this
he seemed to pierce my heart several
times,...[leaving] me completely afire
with a great love for God.”
Teresa’s life was not easy. Shortly
after entering the Convent of the Incarnation
in Avila, she had to deal with
serious illness. Neither did success in
prayer come easy. With persistence and
humble trust in God, however, Teresa’s
prayer, in time, reached a rich level of
maturity and an amazing love-union
She also heard God’s call to reform
the Carmelite way of life. She quickly
discovered that being a reformer is no
way to win a popularity contest. She
met immense opposition. But with
great trust in God and the collaboration
of St. John of the Cross, Teresa spearheaded
the founding of 17 discalced (or
reformed) convents for women and
two discalced monasteries for men
within the Carmelite Order.
Besides her Autobiography, Teresa also
wrote several other spiritual classics
such as The Way of Perfection and The
Interior Castle. It would take a few centuries
before her contributions to mystical
theology and Christian spirituality
were duly recognized. This finally came
about when Pope Paul VI declared her
a Doctor of the Church in 1970, the first
woman to be so honored.
John of the Cross: Finding God in the Darkness
St. John of the Cross was born in a
small town not far from Avila in 1542.
He was only three when his father died.
His mother took him to Medina del
Campo, where he attended a school
for poor children. He entered the
Carmelite monastery in Medina, studied
at the University of Salamanca and
was ordained in 1567. While in Medina
to celebrate his First Mass, he met Teresa
of Avila, who persuaded him to join her
in reforming both the Carmelite friars
In 1570, he became confessor at
Teresa’s Convent of the Incarnation at
Avila. But storms of controversy
between the reformers and those fighting
the reform became intense. The
spiritual controversy reached a climax
in 1577 when John was seized and imprisoned
in a 6’ x 10’ room in the
Carmelite priory in Toledo. During his
time in this dark cell, he worked on
some of his own spiritual classics, which
eventually grew into books such as
Dark Night of the Soul and Living Flame
After nine months, he escaped by
making a rope out of cloth and letting himself down from a high window.
Tired and weak, he was sheltered by
St. Teresa’s nuns in Toledo.
Despite enjoying some success during
his ministry and holding positions
of leadership, John often met resistance
along the way. In 1591, at the
Madrid general chapter of the Order,
John was not elected to any office.
Instead, he was sent to a remote
monastery in southern Spain to pray.
The next year he contracted a serious illness
and died at the Priory of Ubeda on
December 14, 1591.
In 1592, his body was transferred to
the Carmelite monastery in Segovia.
And this is where our pilgrimage caught
up with St. John of the Cross. We were
able to celebrate Eucharist in the presence
of the richly decorated coffin that
contains his earthly remains. Both his
writings and his life teach a vital truth:
Often it is only through darkness and
purification that one advances to
greater union with God. St. John was
declared a Doctor of the Church in
1926. His feast day is December 14.
St. Ignatius of Loyola: From Valiant Warrior to Saint
Born in the Basque region of northern
Spain in 1491, the young Ignatius had
dreams of being a valiant soldier in the
service of the duke of Nagara. During
the battle of Pamplona in 1521, however,
his leg was shattered by a cannonball.
He was brought back to his
family’s ancestral castle to recover.
Confined to bed, he asked for books
to read. All he could obtain were religious
books instead of tales of romance.
Before long, however, Ignatius found
himself profoundly inspired by the life
of Christ, as well as by the lives of saints
like Francis of Assisi and Dominic.
Soon, Ignatius too wanted to do great
things for God.
In touring the castle of Loyola last
spring, our group saw the room where
Ignatius was born and where he recovered
from his wounds, as well as other
parts of his spacious home. After healing
sufficiently, Ignatius set out on a yearlong
spiritual pilgrimage in his own
country. In 1523, he visited Rome and
then took a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
He was deeply moved at many places made holy by Jesus’ living presence but,
to his disappointment, circumstances
forced him to cut his stay short.
On his return to Europe, Ignatius
came to realize that, if he wanted to
make his own special contribution to
the mission of Christ in his day, he
needed to give more attention to his
own formal education. Soon, Ignatius—now over 30 years old—found himself
humbly sitting in Latin class with small
boys learning their lessons. Higher studies
would take him to university towns
in Spain like Alcalá and Salamanca and
to the University of Paris.
In Paris he became a roommate and
good comrade of Francisco Javier (now
known as St. Francis Xavier). In time,
Ignatius gathered more companions
around him who would later call themselves
the Society of Jesus, better known
as the Jesuits.
After Ignatius and seven of his band
were ordained in Venice in 1537, the
group went to Rome to offer their services
to the pope. The Society was
approved by Pope Paul III in 1540, and
Ignatius was soon elected its first superior
general. He spent his remaining
years in Rome devoted to the challenges
of administering the rapidly growing
Order. He died in Rome on July 31,
1556, and was canonized in 1622.
Ignatius had heroically changed from
warrior to saint—and accomplished
great things for the glory of God!
St. Francis Xavier: Bold Missionary to the Orient
The last shrine we visited on our motorbus
pilgrimage across Spain was Javier
Castle, the birthplace of St. Francis
Xavier, near a small town with the same
name (Javier). This castle, some 60 miles
from Ignatius’s, hits the visitor in the
eye like a picture postcard.
The castle has many rooms of interest,
as well as intriguing artwork and
exhibits depicting Francis Xavier’s life.
Francis was born in the family castle
on April 6, 1506. At age 19, he attended
the University of Paris and roomed
with Ignatius Loyola. In 1537, Francis
was ordained a priest, along with
Ignatius and several other members of
the newly formed Society of Jesus.
Within two years, he was in Rome with
Ignatius and others who were laying the
foundations for the young Society.
Suddenly, a great opportunity fell in
the path of Francis Xavier. He was commissioned
by Ignatius, at the request of
the king of Portugal, to travel to Lisbon,
Portugal, and from there to go as a missionary
to the East Indies. Francis sailed
from Lisbon for the Orient on April 7,
1541. After a long, dangerous voyage,
Francis landed in Goa (in western India)
in 1542. After ministering in that region
for five months, he spent three years
near the southern tip of India, evangelizing
the people of that area and baptizing
In 1546, Francis set off for the Malay
Peninsula (now Malaysia) and landed in
the Portuguese city of Malacca. From
there he evangelized widely and visited
several islands in that region, performing
many Baptisms along the way.
Back in Malacca, he met Anjiro, a Japanese
nobleman who would later assist
him in evangelizing Japan.
Francis returned to Goa to attend to
his responsibilities as superior of the
mission there. In 1549, together with
Anjiro and several Jesuits, Francis sailed
off to Japan. They labored in Japan for
over two years, meeting many challenges.
Yet they laid the groundwork
there for Christian communities that
would increase rapidly in the years to
For some time, Francis had also dreamed of evangelizing China. He set
out to do so in 1552, reaching the
island of Sancian in the Bay of Canton
later that year. From this island, he
looked longingly toward the Chinese
mainland. Little did he know that his
missionary days were about to end. He
was soon to take ill with a fever and was
confined to a leafy hut on the island’s
shore. Two weeks later he died on
December 3, 1552.
His body was buried on the island. In
the spring, however, his remains were
taken to Malacca for burial. A few years
later his body was transferred to Goa,
where his remains are still enshrined in
the Church of the Good Jesus.
In 1615, the saint’s right arm was
removed and transported to Rome. The
arm—which had baptized and blessed
so many—is now venerated in the well-known
Jesuit church, the Gesù. The
church also houses the earthly remains
of Francis’ longtime friend and spiritual
mentor, St. Ignatius Loyola.
Known as the “Apostle of the Indies”
and the “Apostle of Japan,” St. Francis
Xavier was a great Christian evangelizer—indeed, one of the greatest and
boldest of all time. His feast day is
Father Jack’s pilgrimage across Spain
was part of a larger tour extending
from Lisbon to Lourdes, arranged by
Pentecost Tours of Batesville, Indiana
(telephone: 800-713-9800; Web
Jack Wintz, O.F.M., has been a writer at St. Anthony
Messenger since 1972. He is also author of the Internet
column Friar Jack’s E-spirations, which can be
accessed at www.friarjack.org. There you can
find longer accounts of these four great Spanish
saints. Click on “ARCHIVE” at the top under the title
and look for their names.