This year is the 500th anniversary of St. Francis Xavier’s
birth. He was born on April 7, 1506, at the family castle, known in Spanish as Castillo
de Javier (Xavier, in English). The Xavier Castle sits about 45 miles southeast of Pamplona
(where his friend-to-be, Ignatius
of Loyola, was struck in the leg by a cannonball in 1521). Details of our visit to the
Xavier Castle will be given near the end of this column.
|Though Xavier Castle dates back to the 10th or 11th centuries, it
has recently been rebuilt. (photo by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.)
In 1525, at the age of 19, Francis went to Paris and entered the university
there. In time, he and Ignatius of Loyola became roommates and then good friends for the
rest of their lives. At this time, Ignatius had already begun developing his Spiritual
Exercises, which would later become a published manual and practical program for Christian
living known throughout the world. Ignatius shared these Exercises with Francis
and several other companions who were trying to discern where God’s Spirit was leading
them. In time, Francis and several other companions of Ignatius’s decided to gather
together and form a group that would become known as the Society of Jesus.
In 1537, Francis was ordained a priest in Venice along with Ignatius
and four other Jesuits. Within two years, Francis was in Rome with Ignatius and others
who were laying the foundations of the Society of Jesus. 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. He was
the first Jesuit missionary. As he departed, Francis was given a brief from the pope appointing
him apostolic nuncio to the East.
|(photo by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.)
After a dangerous voyage that included a lengthy stopover in Mozambique
on the eastern coast of Africa, Francis landed at Goa (in western India) in 1542, 13 months
after leaving Lisbon. 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
them by the thousands. During this time, he was also able to visit the tomb of St. Thomas
the Apostle in São Thomé, now part of Madras, one of India’s major
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, conferring many Baptisms along the way. Back in Malacca, he met
Anjiro, a Japanese nobleman who showed interest in the Catholic faith and told Francis
many things about Japan.
Francis returned to Goa to concentrate on his responsibilities as superior
of the missions there. He also needed to decide what would be the best assignments for
Jesuits who had just arrived from Europe and were eager to establish or help out at new
In 1549, together with Anjiro and several Jesuits, Francis sailed for
Japan by way of Malacca. Japan had not yet been introduced to Christianity. As the group
traveled from place to place, it met many challenges. Efforts at gaining converts did not
always meet with obvious success. Yet, missionaries laid the groundwork in Japan for Christian
communities that would increase rapidly in the years to follow.
|In this painting inside Xavier Castle. St. Francis Xavier is shown
as he gazes longingly toward the Chinese mainland. (photo by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.)
For some time, Francis had also dreamt 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, on December 3, 1552, he died.
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 enshrinedand revered by thousands from all over India and beyondin
the Church of the Good Jesus.
In 1615, the saint’s right arm was removed and transported to Rome.
The armwhich had baptized and blessed so manyis now venerated in the well-known
Jesuit church in Rome, known as the Gesù. This famous church also houses the earthly
remains of Francis’ longtime friend and spiritual mentor, St. Ignatius of Loyola.
The last shrine we visited on our motorbus pilgrimage across Spain was
the Castle of Javier, located near a small town with the same name (Javier). This castle,
some 60 miles from the Castle of Loyola, greets the visitor’s eye like a picture
on a postcard. The castle, which like the Castle of Loyola is under the care of the Jesuits,
has many rooms of interest for the numerous tourists who visit. One can visit the room,
for example, which was once Francis’s bedroom. There are also various rooms and hallways
containing art works and exhibits depicting the life of the great Jesuit missionary.
Our group felt especially honored to celebrate Eucharist in the Chapel
of the Xavier Castle, given that this occurred during the 500th anniversary
year of the birth of St. Francis Xavier.
St. Francis Xavier, whose feast day is December 3, is known as the “Apostle
of the Indies” and the “Apostle of Japan.” Many people rank himafter
St. Paul, the Apostleas the greatest missionary of all time. Francis was canonized
by Pope Gregory XV in 1622. He was named the patron of the Propagation of the Faith in
1910 and patron of the missions in 1927.
See St. Anthony Messenger's version of Friar Jack's saints series
Great Spanish Saints" (December 2006).
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