By Peter Pinedo
How far would you go to serve God?
Would you be willing to travel to the ends of the earth, with nothing but the guarantee of hardship, deprivation, and persecution?
Today’s feast celebrates the life of St. Francis Xavier, the patron saint of missionaries and missions, who led an unlikely life of adventure and heroism, full of unexpected twists and turns, taking the faith to the ends of the earth.
Born in 1506 to a noble Navarrese-Basque family, Francis grew up in a land wracked with war. Wedged between the growing imperial powers of Castile-Aragon (Spain) and France, Navarre seldom knew peace during Francis’ childhood.
As a member of the nobility, Francis was expected to lead a warrior’s life along with his father and brothers.
But at the age of 10, Francis’ life took its first dramatic and tragic turn. His father died, his homeland Kingdom of Navarre was defeated by Spain, his brothers were imprisoned, and his childhood home, the Castle of the House of Javier (Xavier), was almost entirely destroyed.
With his family disgraced and nearly wiped out, Francis’ prospects for a bright future were looking dim. But God still had incredible plans for young Francis.
Hoping to rebuild the family’s legacy, Francis was sent in 1525 to the center of European theology and studies, the University of Paris.
In Paris, Francis quickly made a name for himself. Handsome with a keen intellect and an agile athlete with a particular gift for pole vaulting, the last thing on young Francis’ mind was a life of humble service to God and the Church.
Yet Francis’ life took a second dramatic turn after he met a fellow Basque noble, Ignatius of Loyola. Headstrong and stubborn, Francis was initially repelled by Ignatius’ ideas of radical devotion to God. But Ignatius would remind him of Jesus’ words in the Bible: “For what doth it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his own soul?” (Matthew 16:26).
Inspired by Ignatius’ piety and fervor, Francis finally decided to dedicate his life to the service of God. In 1534, along with Ignatius and five others, Francis took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in a chapel at Montmartre in France.
Receiving Holy Orders alongside Ignatius in 1537, Francis had intended to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. But war in the region had made such a journey impossible. Once again, God was about to unexpectedly and radically alter the course of Francis’ life.
Pope Leo III asked the newly founded Jesuits to send missionaries to the Portuguese colonies in India. Though he was originally not supposed to go, one of the Jesuits assigned to the mission fell ill, and Francis volunteered in his place. Through that courageous act of trust, God would use Francis to transform the entire Asian continent.
Francis set out for India in 1541, on his 35th birthday. Traveling by sea at this time was extremely uncomfortable, and those who dared to do so risked disease with no guarantee of ever successfully arriving at their destination. Francis had to sail all the way around Africa, past the Cape of Good Hope, almost to the very bottom of the globe, just to cross the Indian Ocean and arrive in Goa, a province in India.
Upon arriving in India in 1542, Francis immediately faced countless challenges in bringing the word of God to the people of this new and strange region. For seven years Francis preached in the streets and public squares, laboring tirelessly across India and the Asian Pacific islands, contending with persecution from warlords and at times even from the Portuguese authorities meant to help him.
After converting tens of thousands and planting the seeds of a renewed and lasting Christian Church in India, Francis began to hear stories about an enchanting island nation known as “Japan.” Francis’ heart was set ablaze with the desire to bring the Gospel to Japan. After he had ensured the faithful in India would be properly cared for, Francis set sail for the mysterious new land, becoming the first to bring the Christian faith to Japan, on the complete opposite side of the world from his home in Navarre. He was truly going to the ends of the earth in service of God.
In Japan, Francis and his companions traveled far and wide, often on foot and with almost no resources. Crisscrossing the nation, he built up a vibrant Christian community over 6,000 miles from Rome.
Francis would later hear of the even more mysterious and closely guarded nation of China and here, too, he decided to bring the word of God. But before he could find a way into China’s heartland, Francis got sick and died in 1552, while on the Chinese Shangchuan Island.
Now considered one of the greatest of all the Church’s missionaries, St. Francis Xavier proved that one life lived in complete trust in God can transform an entire continent and the whole world.