Saint Francis Xavier

Saint Francis Xavier

Francis Xavier


  • Death: 12/03/1552
  • Nationality (place of birth): Spain

Francis Xavier (Francisco de Jassu y Javier, 1506-1552), was the first Jesuit missionary and the prototype who inspired many men to enter the Society of Jesus and evangelize far off nations. One of the original group of seven men who founded the Jesuits, he was sent to India before the new religious order received formal approval from the Church.

Xavier was born in his family's small castle in Navarre, in the north of Spain, and there received his early education. In September 1525 he went to Paris to begin university studies at the College of Sainte-Barbe where his roommate was Peter Faber (Pierre Favre) from the Savoy region of France. Four years later everything changed when an older student moved in, Ignatius Loyola (Iñigo Lopez de Loyola), a failed Basque courtier given to prayer. Loyola soon won Faber over to wanting to become a priest and work for the salvation of souls, but Xavier aspired to a worldly career and was not at all interested in being a priest. He earned his licentiate degree in the spring of 1530 and began teaching Aristotle at the College of Dormans-Beauvais; he remained living in the room with Favre and Loyola. When Faber went to visit his family in 1533, Ignatius finally broke through to Xavier who yielded to the grace God was offering him. Four other students also became close friends through their conversations with Ignatius who was became a spiritual guide and inspired the whole group with his desire to go to the Holy Land. Xavier joined his friends Aug. 15, 1534 in the chapel of Saint-Denis in Montmartre as they all pronounced private vows of poverty, chastity and going to the Holy Land to convert infidels.

Xavier and Loyola began studying theology in 1534. Two years later Xavier set out for Venice with the rest of the group except for Loyola who had returned to Spain earlier. Venice was the point of departure for ships going to the Holy Land. The companions spent two months waiting for a ship and working in hospitals, then went to Rome to ask papal permission for their pilgrimage and ordination of the non-priests among them. Xavier, Loyola and four others were ordained by the papal delegate in his private chapel on June 24, 1537. And they continued to wait for a ship, but because of Venice's impending war with the Turks none sailed for a whole year, something quite extraordinary. The companions then decided that Ignatius should go to Rome and place the group at the disposal of the pope. Meanwhile, they would go to various university centers and start preaching. Xavier and Nicholas Bobadilla went to Bologna.

Xavier went to Rome in April 1538 and began preaching in the French church of St. Louis. He also took part in the famous deliberations during Lent 1539 in which the companions agreed to form a new religious order. Before Pope Paul III granted his approval of the plan, he asked Ignatius to accede to King John III of Portugal's request to send two of the companions to the new colony in India. Ignatius chose Simon Rodrigues and Nicholas Bobadilla, but the latter got sick and could not go. Francis Xavier was the only one of the companions not already committed to a work so Ignatius asked him to go, even though they were the closest friends and the departure meant that they would never see each other again.

Xavier and Rodrigues left Rome March 15, 1540 and arrived in Lisbon by the end of June. The fleet had already left so the two priests had to remain in Lisbon until the following spring. They devoted themselves to preaching and caring for prisoners. The king was so taken by their work that he asked one of them to stay and start a school; Rodrigues was chosen, leaving Xavier to head off alone as the first Jesuit missionary. As Xavier boarded the ship Santiagio, the king's messenger gave him a letter in which the pope named him apostolic nuncio, which meant that he had authority over all Portuguese clergy in Goa. The ship set sail April 7, 1541, on Xavier's thirty-fifth birthday.

It took 13 months for Xavier to arrive in Goa, including a long wait in Mozambique for favorable winds. As soon as he arrived, the energetic Spaniard set about preaching to the Portuguese, visiting prisons and ministering to lepers. He also tried to learn Tamil, but had to rely on interpreters for his first mission to the Paravas, pearl fishers who lived on India's southeastern shore above Cape Comorin. They had converted to Christianity but been without a pastor, so Xavier reinstructed them in the faith, baptized those who were ready and prepared catechists to remain with them as he moved on from one village to the next. By the end of 1544 he reached the western shore of India at Travancore; in November and December of that year he is reported to have baptized 10,000 persons. He moved northward to Cochin, and then sailed to the Portuguese city of Malacca in Malaya; from there he headed for his goal, the Moluccas, or the Spice Islands where he landed on Feb. 14, 1546. He visited the Christian villages and baptized over 1,000 persons at nearby Seran. Then he did a reconnaissance trip to the islands Ternate and Moro, known for its headhunters. He returned to Malacca in July 1547 and arranged for two Jesuits to take his place.

When Xavier returned to Malacca, he learned about Japan from a Japanese nobleman named Anjiro who was interested in becoming a Christian. This revelation of a culturally advanced nation that had not yet heard of Christ captured the Spanish Jesuit's imagination. Before he could do anything about Japan, Xavier had to return to Goa to fulfill his responsibilities as mission superior and assign newly arrived Jesuits to their posts. He was not able to set sail for Japan with Anjiro and several Jesuits until April 1549. The party got back to Malacca easily enough but could find no ship's captain willing to take the risk of sailing into unknown waters. So Xavier hired a pirate to take them. They left June 24, 1549 and landed on August 15 at Kagoshima in southern Japan, Anjiro's home city.

At first the mission went very smoothly. The local prince gave permission to the foreigners to preach Christianity, but he himself would not convert. Xavier decided that the way to convert Japan was to begin with the emperor, but no one would tell him how to get to the Imperial City, Miyako (today's Tokyo). They spent a year in Kagoshima but only made 100 converts, so the Jesuits left for Hirado, a port used by the Portuguese on the upper coast of Kyushu. Another 100 Japanese became Christians but Xavier remained eager to see the emperor, so he moved to the country's second largest city, Yamaguchi. He preached in the streets but suffered a very unsuccessful meeting with the daimyo, so he left that city in December 1550 for Sakai.

Their fortune turned and they finally found a prince willing to take them to the Imperial City. Xavier and Brother John Fernandez were hired as domestic servants and arrived in January 1551, the first Catholic missionaries to see Asia's largest and most beautiful city. For 11 days they tried without success to secure an audience with the emperor, so they returned to Hirado. They went back, though, with the knowledge that the most powerful lord in Japan was not the emperor, but the daimyo of Yamaguchi, whom they had failed to convince in their first meeting. Xavier resolved to try again, appearing not as a poorly-clad European but as an individual worthy of the daimyo's attention.

The two Jesuits rented horses and a litter and dressed themselves in colorful silken robes. When they ceremoniously arrived in Yamaguchi, they were received at the daimyo's palace without any suspicion that they were the same barbarians who had been brushed away only months earlier. Xavier presented the daimyo with expensive gifts of clocks, music boxes, mirrors, crystals, cloth and wine as signs of friendship; and he presented impressive credentials: letters from King John III of Portugal and Pope Paul III. The daimyo granted the Jesuit's request to preach the Christian religion in the empire, and gave people the freedom to become Christians if they wanted to. He also gave the Jesuits a residence in the city, where many people visited. Within six months they had gained 500 converts.

Xavier thought it was time for him to move on so he brought Father Cosmas de Torres to replace him in Yamaguchi so he could return to India. Xavier set out in September 1551, and found a ship for Malacca. He hoped to return to Japan the following year, but the ship got caught in a typhoon that drove it 1,000 miles off course. On December 17, the vessel entered the Bay of Canton and anchored off Sancian Island. As Xavier looked towards nearby China, he felt that country calling him. The two Jesuits were able to board a ship that happened to be bound for Singapore, which they reached at the end of the month. There Xavier found a letter from Ignatius appointing him provincial of the ""Indies and the countries beyond.

He was back in India in January 1552 and found another letter telling him to return to Rome to report on the mission; he decided that visit could wait until he had first gone to China. In April 1552 Xavier set out from India and entered the Bay of Canton in September. He landed on Sancian Island which was both a hideout for Chinese smugglers and a base for Portuguese traders. None of the smugglers was willing to risk taking the Jesuit missionary over to China; one who said he was, took Xavier's money and then disappeared. On November 21 he came down with a fever and could not leave his leafy hut on the island's shore. Seven days later he fell into a coma, but on December 1 regained consciousness and devoted himself to prayer during his waking hours. He died on the morning of December 3 and was buried on the island, but his remains were later taken to Malacca and then to Goa where they were interred in the church Bom Jesus.

He was canonized in 1622 and made patron of the Propagation of the Faith in 1910 and in 1927 was named patron of the missions.

Originally Collected and edited by: Tom Rochford, SJ