Saint Francis Xavier | Facts and Missions

St. Francis Xavier (born April 7, 1506, Xavier Castle, near Sangüesa, Navarre [Spain] the greatest Roman Catholic missionary of modern times who was instrumental in the establishment of Christianity in India, the Malay Archipelago, and Japan. In Paris, in 1534 he pronounced vows as one of the first seven members of the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, under the leadership of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

Early Life

Francis was born in Navarre (now in northern Spain), at the family castle of Xavier, where Basque was the native language. He was the third son of the president of the council of the king of Navarre, most of whose kingdom was soon to fall to the crown of Castile (1512). Francis grew up at Xavier and received his early education there. In 1525 he journeyed to the University of Paris, the theological center of Europe, to begin his studies.

Missions

After all the members of the band had completed their studies, they reassembled in Venice, where Francis was ordained priest on June 24, 1537. Having for more than a year sought passage to the Holy Land in vain, the seven, along with fresh recruits, went to Rome to put themselves at the disposal of the pope. Meanwhile, as a result of their preaching and care of the sick throughout central Italy, they had become so popular that many Catholic princes sought their services. One of these was King John III of Portugal, who desired diligent priests to minister to the Christians and to evangelize the peoples in his new Asian dominions. When illness prevented one of the two originally chosen for the task from departing, Ignatius designated Francis as his substitute. The next day, March 15, 1540, Francis left Rome for the Indies, traveling first to Lisbon. In the following fall, Pope Paul III formally recognized the followers of Ignatius as a religious order, the Society of Jesus.

Francis disembarked in Goa, the center of Portuguese activity in the East, on May 6, 1542; his companion had remained behind to work in Lisbon. Much of the next three years he spent on the southeastern coast of India among the simple, poor pearl fishers, the Paravas. About 20,000 of them had accepted baptism seven years before, chiefly to secure Portuguese support against their enemies; since then, however, they had been neglected. Using a small catechism he had translated into native Tamil with the help of interpreters, Francis traveled tirelessly from village to village instructing and confirming them in their faith. His evident goodness and the force of his conviction overcame difficulties of verbal communication. Shortly afterward the Macuans on the southwestern coast indicated their desire for baptism, and after brief instructions, he baptized 10,000 of them in the last months of 1544. He anticipated that the schools he planned and Portuguese pressure would keep them constant in the faith.

In the fall of 1545, news of opportunities for Christianity attracted him to the Malay Archipelago. Following several months of evangelization among the mixed population of the Portuguese commercial centre at Malacca (now Melaka, Malaysia), he moved on to found missions among the Malays and the headhunters in the Spice Islands (Moluccas). In 1548 he returned to India, where more Jesuits had since arrived to join him. In Goa the College of Holy Faith, founded several years previously, was turned over to the Jesuits, and Francis began to develop it into a centre for the education of native priests and catechists for the diocese of Goa, which stretched from the Cape of Good Hope, at the southern tip of Africa, to China.

Francis’s eyes, however, were now fixed on a land reached only five years before by Europeans: Japan. His conversations in Malacca with Anjirō, a Japanese man deeply interested in Christianity, had shown that this people was cultured and sophisticated. On August 15, 1549, a Portuguese ship bearing Francis, the newly baptized Anjirō, and several companions entered the Japanese port of Kagoshima. His first letter from Japan, which was to be printed more than 30 times before the end of the century, revealed his enthusiasm for the Japanese as, “the best people yet discovered.” He grew conscious of the need to adapt his methods. His poverty that had so won the Paravas and Malays often repelled the Japanese, so he abandoned it for studied display when this was called for. In late 1551, having received no mail since his arrival in Japan, Francis decided to return temporarily to India, leaving to the care of his companions about 2,000 Christians in five communities.

Death

He devoted almost three years to the work of preaching to the people of southern India and Ceylon, converting many. He built nearly 40 churches along the coast, including St. Stephen’s Church, Kombuthurai, mentioned in his letters dated 1544. He died from a fever at Shangchuan, Taishan, China, on 3 December 1552.

Xavier was first buried on a beach at Shangchuan Island, Taishan, Guangdong. His body was taken from the island in February 1553 and temporarily buried in St. Paul’s church in Portuguese Malacca on 22 March 1553. An open grave in the church now marks the place of Xavier’s burial. Pereira came back from Goa, removed the corpse shortly after 15 April 1553, and moved it to his house. On 11 December 1553, Xavier’s body was shipped to Goa. The body is now in the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Goa, where it was placed in a glass container encased in a silver casket on 2 December 1637. This casket, constructed by Goan silversmiths between 1636 and 1637, was an exemplary blend of Italian and Indian aesthetic sensibilities. There are 32 silver plates on all the four sides of the casket depicting different episodes from the life of the Saint.

The right forearm, which Xavier used to bless and baptize his converts, was detached by Superior General Claudio Acquaviva in 1614. It has been displayed since in a silver reliquary at the main Jesuit church in Rome.

St Xavier Feast, Goa

Saint Francis Xavier’s relics are kept in a silver casket, elevated inside the Bom Jesus Basilica and are exposed (being brought to ground level) generally every ten years, but this is discretionary. The sacred relics went on display starting on 22 November 2014 at the XVII Solemn Exposition. The display closed on 4 January 2015. The previous exposition, the sixteenth, was held from 21 November 2004 to 2 January 2005.

Each year, on 3rd December, marks the anniversary of St Francis Xavier’s death, when thousands gather at the Basilica of Bom Jesus. This annual festival, known as the Feast of St Francis Xavier or Goinchea Saibache Fest, (Lord of Goa Festival), is the biggest of all the Christian festivals in Goa. People from near and far come to participate in the morning mass.