Feast of St Francis Xavier today and ambivalent as we all might be about Catholic missionary endeavours all bound up with Western colonialism and exploitation, there is still something about St Francis Xavier’s vision that moves me.
In 1541, King John of Portugal asked Ignatius for priests to send to the missions in India. Despite knowing he would never see his beloved companion again, Ignatius chose Francis Xavier for the mission. Francis left by ship on the long sea journey to India, arriving at the city of Goa in 1542.
For the next 10 years Francis Xavier traveled from Goa to Cape Comorin in south India, then to the East Indies, Malacca, and the Moluccas, and onward to Japan. He longed to get permission to enter China as a missionary. Carrying his breviary and a book of meditations, Francis preached the Gospel to the poor and sick, spending most of his time ministering to their needs. His nights were taken up in prayer. His only attention to his personal needs was to have a pair of sturdy walking boots. He barely ate enough to stay alive. In 1552 he died, exhausted from his labors and fasting regimes, on a small island off the coast of China with a single companion at his side.
His compassion and heartfelt desire to serve others, to share with them the joy and freedom to be found in the Gospels and his sense of urgency about reaching out to those still unaware of the love of Christ are qualities found in many of his letters and instructions to his helpers. He was also surprisingly practical and concerned with the struggles of the poor. From the Life & Letters of St Francis Xavier:
I am now setting off for Cape Comorin, where I am taking twenty boats laden with provisions, to assist those poor converts who, terrified at the approach of the Badages, who are the fiercest possible enemies of all Christians, have left their villages and taken refuge on the little barren islands ; and there they are now, exposed to all the heat of the sun, and the extremes of hunger and thirst. Some of them are even dying under their sufferings, and my heart is pierced through and through at their wretched lot. I beg of you, over and over again, go on praying for us, I am writing to the Patangatins and to the magistrates on your coast, to ask them to help these poor folk with their alms. I want you to take care that these alms are not extracted from the unwilling and the poor, but from willing and rich givers. Let the collection be made with all consideration of the inclination as well as of the powers of those who are canvassed for it. Farewell.