Saint Francis Xavier
Xavier, Navarre (Spain), April 7, 1506
Shangchuan Island (China), December 3, 1552
He was beatified by Paul V on October 25, 1619.
He was canonized by Gregory XV on March 12, 1622.
Francis of Jasso and Azpilicueta was born on April 7, 1506, in the castle of Xavier, Navarre in Spain. His father, Don Juan de Jasso, was a man of politics and diplomacy. His position, one of the King of Navarre’s counselors, obliged him to travel frequently. He died when Francis was only nine years old. His mother, María de Azpilicueta, belonged to a noble family. Francis was the youngest of six siblings: Magdalena, Ana, María, Miguel and Juan. Doña María, his mother, made sure to instill in her children a profoundly pious spirit and a tender love toward Jesus and Mary.
In 1512, the Castilian troops invaded the kingdom of Navarre. The Castilians were victorious and, after destroying the castle of Xavier, they usurped the goods and the lands of Francis’s family. After these difficult moments, in 1525, Francis left Navarre to study philosophy at the Sorbonne University in Paris. He immersed himself in studies, sports and social life, and began to live a worldly life, distancing himself from God. He lived in the College of St. Barbara, where his roommate was St. Pierre Fabre, and a little later, St. Ignatius of Loyola, who tried to help Francis Xavier to live a Christian lifestyle, stimulating his conscience and encouraging him to think seriously about the fundamental questions, like the meaning of life. He would repeat the phrase from the Gospel, “What benefit does a man receive if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?” Francis’ ambitious heart resisted. Ignatius persevered, exhorting and encouraging him to turn back to God. Through Ignatius’s example and works, Francis began to change, and was convinced to do “Spiritual Exercises.” Those Spiritual Exercises caused a profound spiritual transformation in Francis.
St. Francis Xavier’s heart was now converted, and Ignatius encouraged him to give himself to God even more fully by inviting him to begin a new life of consecration. Francis was to be one of the six young men who, together with St. Ignatius of Loyola, would found the Company of Jesus in the chapel of Montmartre in Paris on the Feast of the Assumption, 1534.
Three years later, Francis was ordained a priest in Venice. He then traveled to Rome to help St. Ignatius write the constitutions of the Company of Jesus.
In 1540, the King of Portugal, John III, requested missionaries to evangelize the new Portuguese colonies in the East. St. Ignatius chose two Jesuits for that mission. When one of them fell ill, Francis offered himself as a substitute and went to Portugal to set sail for India with another Jesuit missionary. Ignatius and Francis bid farewell, knowing they would never see each other again in this world.
In Portugal, Francis Xavier and the other missionary spent several months in the court of King John III, whose friendship they won. The King wanted to retain them in his court. The other Jesuit remained in Portugal, but Francis finally left for India with two other Jesuit missionaries on April 7, 1541.
Francis began his task of evangelization during the trip, before arriving in India. He did works of charity and apostolate among the crew and the passengers. They lived difficult moments together due to an epidemic and so they dedicated themselves to the taking care of the sick on-board.
After the long trip, they arrived at the Cape of Good Hope and spent the winter in Mozambique. On May 6, 1542, the missionaries finally reached their destination: Goa, India. The Catholic community was numerous, but the Christians had lost their initial fervor. The saint vehemently exhorted them to return to a coherent Christian life. He also went on expeditions to other communities to bring them the Gospel.
Several months after arriving at Goa, Xavier traveled to the Pearl Fishery Coasts (from Cape Comorin to the Island of Mannar) to visit the Parava communities. This tribe had converted to Christianity earlier, and although many had been baptized, they had not received any sort of formation in the faith and still practiced their ancient cultish traditions. The saint worked hard to learn the language to be able to communicate with them. He instructed those who were already Catholic and baptized many other natives. In his letters to his superiors, he told them that, at a certain point, his arms grew tired from baptizing so many.
In 1545, he set off for Malacca and spent four months evangelizing the nearby towns. It was an especially difficult mission for Francis, but it helped him in his spiritual life as we can see in his letter to St. Ignatius:
“All these dangers and discomforts, when borne for the love of our Lord Jesus Christ, are treasuries filled full with heavenly consolations, so much so that one might think these islands were just the places where in a few years one might lose one's eyesight from weeping so abundantly the sweetest tears of joy. Nowhere do I remember have been so flooded with so much spiritual delight, and the consolations make all fatigue and bodily trouble bearable, though I was going about islands begirt with enemies, inhabited by not the most trustworthy friends.”
After the expedition to Malacca, Francis Xavier returned to India in 1548. From there, he continued his intense missionary work, travelling to the different missions to strengthen the faith of the Christians. The following year, he was informed that no missionary had yet reached Japan. The saint, always willing to make new efforts, decided to go to those people who still did not know God, with several companions. On August 15, he arrived in Kagoshima to begin his apostolate in Japan. There were many conversions, which made him suspicious to the authorities, who soon forbade him to preach. Xavier decided to go to Nagasaki and entrusted to Paul, one of his companions, the souls of the Christians in Kagoshima. The mission in Nagasaki was very fruitful, and Xavier traveled to Yamaguchi and Miyako a few months later. Even in these more hostile areas, Francis made an impressive advance in the evangelization of the Japanese.
In 1552, the saint decided to return to India to visit the communities, hoping at the same time to be able to later travel to China, a trip he had often dreamt of. This expedition was extremely dangerous; the Chinese punished with death those foreigners who dared to intrude into the kingdom. It would seem, however, that Francis was blind to any obstacles. He overcame all the difficulties and was able to furtively arrive to Shangchuan Island. And there, near the coast of China, he fell fatally ill with pneumonia.
On December 3, in the presence of Anthony, a Chinese interpreter who accompanied him in that mission, Francis surrendered his soul to God with these words, “Mother of God, Son of David, have mercy on me.” His body was carried to Goa, where it is conserved incorrupt.
Francis Xavier was beatified by Paul V on October 25, 1619. Pope Gregory XV canonized him, along with St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Philip Neri, and St. Isidore the Worker on March 12, 1622.
The profession of faith and the sacraments are fundamental pillars of St. Francis’s catechesis in missionary lands. He was conscious of how necessary it is to know Christ and to have a relationship with him. In his letters, there are continuous references to this, and he insists upon the importance of cultivating interior dispositions that permit the faithful to receive the Body of Christ. He speaks of sacraments as “the true treasures that Christ, Our Lord, left us in this life in order to reach the next.”
On one occasion, when writing about the topics of his preaching, he says, “I preach about the articles of faith and the sacraments of confession and communion, because I know by experience how much they need these.”
On another occasion, he expressed his concern about those who don’t understand the meaning of Eucharistic Communion, and doubt the real presence of Christ in the Most Holy Eucharist: “You will encounter some people— I hope they be few— who doubt in the sacraments, especially that of communion. […] You must encourage them to reveal to you all the imagination and infidelities and doubts they harbor, because the best remedy for beginners is first to acknowledge their doubts. Afterwards, incite them to believe, firmly without doubt, that the true body of Christ, our Redeemer and Lord, is in that sacrament.”
St. Francis Xavier’s mother taught her children to have a tender love for the Most Holy Virgin Mary. When he was little, Francis learned to sing the Salve Regina and the family sang it in the chapel of the castle before the image of Our Lady of Xavier, a Romanic sculpture of Mary with the Child Jesus in her arms.
On his mission trips, St. Francis Xavier transmitted his devotion to the Most Holy Virgin Mary to the new Christians. He taught them the prayers with which we honor her and encouraged them to invoke her as a mother.
In his letters, he often invokes the Blessed Virgin and asks for her maternal protection. “Take the glorious Virgin, Our Lady, as your guardian; in heaven, everything she requests of God, Our Lord, is granted her.”
The most important relic of the saint is his incorrupt body in Goa, India. His body was brought to Goa shortly after his death on Shangchuan Island, China. His right arm, with which he baptized so many newly converted Christians, was taken to Rome, Italy, where it is displayed for the veneration of the faithful in the Jesuit Church of the Gesù.
In Xavier, Navarre (Spain), the Xavier family castle is open for visits. It was restored in the beginning of the 20th century and converted into a museum. The two most important places to visit are the bedroom of the saint and the “Christ of the Smile”, a crucifix before which the saint often prayed in the tower of the castle.
From the saint:
Over 130 letters and other writings by St. Francis Xavier have been conserved. They have been published in English in books and can also be found on the internet.
From other authors:
- “Set All Afire,” a novel of St. Francis Xavier by Louis de Wohl (Ignatius Press).
- “A Saint in a Hurry,” a play by Jose Maria Pemán.