In a years of life, St Francis Xavier had a huge impact on the world.
Born in Navarre in Spain in 1506, he was a good-natured young man: handsome, athletic and studious. He was also a man of great ambitions, going to the University of Paris in 1525 to pursue an academic career. There, while serious about his studies, he led a somewhat wild student life, sharing rooms with another young man, Peter Faber. They were later joined by a much older student, a limping Basque named Inigo. Under the influence of Inigo (St Ignatius Loyola), these three would become among the first companions who formed the Society of Jesus – the Jesuit order. But Xavier was not originally open to this influence; in fact, Ignatius would speak of him as the toughest dough he ever had to knead. Slowly, though, he allowed Ignatius to open his heart more deeply to Christ and to recognise that his ambitions, enormous as they were, were tiny compared to the greatest possible ambition: to offer his life completely to the call of Christ the King.
At this time, the King of Portugal was keen for Jesuits to minister to the Portuguese in newly established trading centres in India and East Asia, and to spread the Gospel to the peoples of those lands. In 1540, Ignatius sent Francis Xavier, at that time his secretary in Rome, telling him to go and set the world on fire. With his usual generosity and availability, Xavier went on a day’s notice! He was never to see his dear friend Ignatius again.
Xavier’s life from then on was one of constant movement in service of the Gospel – so much so that many consider him the greatest missionary since St Paul. After his initial labours in Goa, east India, and Sri Lanka, he went to parts of modern-day Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia and Japan. He preached, visited prisons, cared for the sick and dying, instructed people in the faith, and prepared catechists. He faced the great dangers of sea travel – storms and pirates – as well as the hostility of some of the local peoples.
St Francis Xavier baptised tens of thousands into the faith. Many Christian communities in these places owe their origins to Xavier’s tireless labours over a brief 10-year period. But while he saw his own work as offering basic catechesis, baptising and then moving on, he also saw the need for people to be formed in their faith, and arranged for other Jesuits to follow him and for local catechists. A constant refrain in his letters home was for preachers to be sent – priests who were gifted in proclaiming the Word, so that the seed of faith sown at baptism could be nurtured and grow.
The more he worked in eastern Asia, and especially Japan, the more Xavier realised that the cultures he encountered were profoundly influenced by the culture of China. How could Christianity be a true religion, people asked, if the Chinese knew nothing of it? For this reason, seeking always the greater good, Xavier turned his eyes to China, going to great lengths to find a way there. He got as far as Shangchuan Island. While waiting for a ship to take him the final 14 km to the mainland, he took sick, and after two weeks wracked with fever, he died there on 3 December, 1552.