November 29, 2006

St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552)
Great Missionary to the Orient

by Friar Jack Wintz, O.F.M.



Francis Xavier meets Ignatius of Loyola
Francis Xavier sails to the Orient
Off to Japan—and dreams of China
Visiting Xavier Castle
Remembering the great missionary


Though Xavier Castle dates back to the 10th or 11th centuries, it has recently been rebuilt. (photo by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.)
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.

Francis Xavier meets Ignatius of Loyola

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.

Francis Xavier sails to the Orient

(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 cities.

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 missions.

Off to Japan—and dreams of China

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 enshrined—and revered by thousands from all over India and beyond—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 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.

Visiting Xavier Castle

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.

Remembering the great missionary

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 him—after St. Paul, the Apostle—as 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 at "Four Great Spanish Saints" (December 2006).

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