Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Saint Francis Xavier - A Frontier Apostle of Christ to Asia

(The Vision of St. Francis Xavier, by Giovanni Battista Gaulli)

On the 03rd of December every year, the Catholic Church commemorates the memory of Saint Francis Xavier (1506-1552), one of the most illustrious missionaries of the second millennium. No sea was dangerous for him, no nationalities were foreign to him, no language was a barrier for him, in fact, Jesus Christ was his compass, boats were his vehicles which carried him from Rome to Lisbon to Goa - India, to Moluccas - Indonesia, to Yamaguchi -Japan and finally to Sancian - China. All this Xavier did in the 16th century, that too, in just 11 years from 1541 to1552.  In his 10 years of life in Asia as the first Jesuit provincial of Goa he did the unimaginable work by planting the seeds of Christianity in so many parts.  Here is a short description on his life and work.  

I. Birth in a Noble Family 

In the great castle of the Xaviers, situated in the frontiers of Navarra, still an independent nation, is born Francis on April 7th 1506, the fifth and last child of Juan of Jassu, an important person in the court of Navarra, and Maria de Azpilcueta, also of a noble and rich family of the kingdom. From his early infancy Francis reveals himself as a happy and intelligent child and still at a tender age he is educated and, at the same time, in a solid Christian faith.  

Francis’ youth life is upset by the political events of the time: in 1515, the war between Castilla-Aragón and France involves Navarra, which at the end is invaded and incorporated into the Kingdom of Casttilla. The patriots of Navarra, among whom two elder brothers of Francis, fight along with the French and conquer Pamplona in 1521, where, with the forces on behalf of Spaniards, Iñigo de Loyola was fighting. The war ends with the definitive victory of the Spaniards. The brothers of Francis, lined up with the independentists become losers: the properties of the family are at the mercy of invaders, which ruins the prestige, and the economic comfort of the family.

"The house of Xaviers is one of the oldest and brightest ones of the kingdom of Navarra: its master has lordly sovereignty without having any obligation of giving tribute or homage to the King or to the Crown of Navarra, exception made to going to war or making peace under his command, as a result of old titles and privileges. Since ancient times the house of Xaviers has the right of asylum. (…) The house of Xaviers had in different times Lords of great honour, many of whom were governors of the kingdom, or had other important assignments at the court of the king." (From a document of the court of Sangüesa, c.1480)

II. Unexpected Meeting in Paris, France

When Francis is eighteen years old, he goes to study at the University of Paris and takes lodging in the College of Saint Barbara. While attending the university (studies philosophy and theology), Francis doesn't refuse a lavish life, while demonstrating himself as a sociable and sportive character. His ambition was to undertake ecclesiastical career – (was aspiring to be a Canon at the Cathedral of Pamplona) a dream that didn’t look difficult to realize.  

Francis lives with his great friend Peter Faber, in a room and a strange limping man of 40 years named Ignatius, joins them (the old foe of Francis’ brothers, who by now changed the name Iñigo into the latin Ignatius). By speaking little by little of God, Inigo forms a small group of young students, among whom is Faber, attracted by the ideal to follow Christ radically. Francis, who resisted for long, joins the group after making spiritual exercises and has no more interests to seek the deceptive honours of the world but only the glory of God and the good of man and woman. 

On the feast of Assumption of Mary (15th August) in 1534, all the seven of the group take the vows in the Chapel of Montmartre the outskirts of Paris, to serve Christ in poverty, chastity and to go to Jerusalem. And they decide if this is not possible to go to the Holy Land then they would travel to Rome and put themselves at the disposition of the Pope.

"At the vigil of 15th August I had just finished celebrating the Mass and entrusting you to God with all my heart. During the entire morning I did no other thing than remembering that day of 15th August in Montmartre, and the hours we spent there in the vineyard. After the celebration, when I entered my room, I found on the table your letter of 18th June, sent from Loretto [Italy]. I had such a consolation, that amidst the difficulties I was living, it seemed miraculous to get a letter from you on that very day. (…) I find pleasure in thinking that we will all meet – in not a long time – in front of Whom called us to go to Montmartre..." (Letter from Simao Rodrigues SJ to Nicolas Bobadilla, SJ in 1556 where he remembers the vows in Montmartre). 

III. Beginnings of the Society of Jesus: From Rome to the World

Ignatius and his companions travel through diverse ways from Paris to Venice. However they cannot continue their journey to Holy Land, since Turks dominate the Mediterranean and no ship risks to sail. In the meantime, Francis, Ignatius and those who were not yet ordained receive the sacred orders. After a period of waiting and searching for almost a year, they decide to realize the vow of Montmartre so that they can avail themselves at the service of Pope.

In the eternal city they distinguish themselves for their zeal, charity and doctrine as well as for their dedication towards the poor. Their fame spreads leaps and bounds of Italy and Europe. Many Italian cities and also kings of other European states request these “special priests”. Before an eventual dispersion of the companions, they decide to form in a group, bound by a vote of obedience. As a result a religious order is born. Ignatius, in spite of all his resistance, is elected as general, and the Pope approves the new Order. The papal bull “Regimini Militantis Ecclesiae”, of September 27th, 1540, is the official document that founded, “the Society of Jesus.”

The companions of Jesus begin to travel throughout Europe, rendering a powerful help to the counter-reformation of the Catholics. Francis Xavier didn’t succeed to see the expansion of the Society of Jesus in Europe as he already left for Lisbon to respond to the king John III of Portugal, i.e. few months before the official approval of the Society of Jesus. From Lisbon he leaves for India and Japan, and never makes a come back to Europe. Other vast and far away places from old Europe are waiting for him.

"Whoever desires to serve as a soldier of God beneath the banner of the cross in our Society, which we desire to be designated by the name of Jesus, and to serve the Church, his spouse, under the Roman pontiff, (…) He is a member of a Society founded chiefly for this purpose: to strive especially for the defense and propagation of the faith and for the progress of souls in Christian life and doctrine. (…) Moreover, he should show himself ready to reconcile the estranged, compassionately assist and serve those who are in prisons or hospitals, and indeed to perform any other works of charity, according to what will seem expedient for the glory of God and the common good."  (From the Papal Bull of Pope Julius III, approving of the Society of Jesus, 1550.)

IV. Arriving to the Faraway India
Xavier leaves from Lisbon on 7th April 1541. His destination was Goa, India the capital City of Portuguese Empire in the Orient. After some months he arrives at the coast of South India, the place of Paravas: very poor fishermen of pearls who were baptized but not educated in Catholic faith. Following, he reaches  Travancor in the west coast of India. Then he moves to North, Cochin. In the meantime he receives the news that Christianity has begun to spread in the communities and plans a travel to the islands of Molucche (now called as Maluku, in Indonesia). 

It is impossible to follow the travelling itinerary of Xavier, as he is on continuous up and down travels in the Orient. Where ever he arrived he brought the Good News of the Lord, baptizing, catechising the basic principles of Christian faith to those whom he met.

Xavier, was an untiring apostle; no obstacle was too heavy for him, neither hunger nor sleep, nor heat, or different languages that he was trying to learn in a basic level in order to announce the Good News of his Lord.

After every missionary journey Xavier was returning to Goa so that he could receive the correspondence from Rome. His heart was always carrying his companions who were serving in Europe and specially his friend Father Ignatius. But his ardent missionary zeal was inviting him to contemplate the other targets. The Portuguese merchants were bringing the news from extreme orient that the christianity has not yet arrived there. Hence, Xavier was ready to embark to the land where Sun Rises - Japan.  

"Many people here do not find the way of Christ because there are no men who consecrate themselves to the holy ministry. Frequently a desire fills my soul: to go to your universities and cry like a man who lost his head, mainly to Paris, to the Sorbonne, saying to those who have more science than goodwill, that they should use it better. (…) If with the same commitment they apply to study, they reflected on what God asks from their science and from the skills God has given them, many would feel shaken and would try to find, with the appropriate means of the Spiritual Exercises, the divine will, ready to follow Him more than their own natural inclinations, and saying: "Lord, here I am! What do you want me to do? Send me where You want, even to the Indians if that is necessary!"  (Letter of Francis Xavier from Cochin, India, 1544)

V. An European at the Door of Celestial Empire

Francis decided to go to Japan. His project was to see the emperor, but could not succeed in getting an audience with him. Instead, he had relationship with various local princes who were exercising real power. Very soon he realized that his method of evangelizing in poverty had no much success in Japanese culture. Cutting short his apostolic plan for the moment, he now decided to direct his energies to the persons of higher class in the hope of converting more  and later of the lower class (as he did with Parava fishermen). But his plan did not take off as a result of internal fights among the local lords. He planed to go to China to evangelize the Celestial Empire, which would have helped the mission in the empire of the Rising Sun. He left Japan on 16th November 1551. At the end of his stay nevertheless numerous difficulties that he encountered he left behind around 1,500 Christians and four centres of blossoming Christianity: Kangoshima, Firando, Yamaguchi and Bungo.

Francis returned to Goa and from there organised his journey to China. After many hurdles he arrived at the island of Sancian; there he died due to fatigue and fever on the 3rd December 1552. Xavier had travelled in uncomfortable boats and ships of the time, 13 times 1,000 kilo meters from Goa to the coast of Peschiera, two times 7,000 kilo meters for the journey to Japan and other 7,000 kilo meters at his attempt to go to China. 

Today Francis is the co-patron of the missions with St. Theresa of Lisieux, who never left her convent. Both the saints appear so differently but united in profound love for their Lord and for their brothers and sisters.

"He suffered from such an attack of fever that a Portuguese merchant, out of compassion, took him to his own hut, and asked him if he would allow to be leeched, because he was sicker than he thought. (…) He took that with great patience, without the slightest murmur or asking for help. His spirit started to wander, and in his delirium, some apparently incoherent words proved that he thought about his brothers in the Society of Jesus. (…) The eyes raised to the sky, in a rather joyful disposition, he had long colloquies with the Lord, in several languages he knew. (…) He had on his lips these invocations and other of the kind for the entire evening of Friday, till the dawn of Saturday, when he understood that he was dying; I put a small candle in his hand; then, with the name of Jesus on his lips, he gave his soul to his Creator and Lord, with a lot of serenity and peace." Description of the death of Francis Xavier, written by his faithful Chinese friend Antonio in 1554

Prayer to Saint Francis Xavier:
God, Creator and Lord
who called Saint Francis Xavier
to announce your saving word
to the ends of the earth,
renew in me the desire
to seek only your greater glory
by humbly following Christ,
so that my life becomes
a living gospel.
May every Christian community,
enflamed by your Holy Spirit
to imitate this first companion
of Saint Ignatius,
burn with the same missionary fire,
so that all people,
abandoning the seduction of the world,
may participate in the gift
of the resurrection,
in the sure hope of eternal life.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.
℟. Amen.

- Olvin Veigas, SJ

02 December 2020

2 comments: said...

Fr. Olvin,
This wirtings made me to reflect upon my own call. Thank you for your insights. Your dedication and commitment voice out the same zeal of st. Francis.

Joilin said...

Very inspiring message Father! I always look at St.Francis Xavier,as my model missionary whose only one desire is" Christ should reign over the world even at the cost of his life." My gratitude is always due to you for bringing out such a great article to ignite the fire in our lives to be as that of this saint of all times.