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Brave Faith

Francis Xavier left the comforts of Paris for the mission fields
By Brian Caulfield, FFG Editor

Brave Faith

As the Dec. 3 feast of St. Francis Xavier approaches each year, I wonder: Where is the Xavier of our day?

Francis Xavier was born in 1506 to a landed family in Navarre, Spain. He studied at the university in Paris, where he met fellow Basque Ignatius Loyola, a former soldier who had gone through a radical conversion and was what would be called today an adult student. Anyone who thinks Catholic culture was provincial and insulated at the time of Martin Luther’s revolt against the Church simply does not know European history. There were many problems in the Church and in society at the time, but the wide sharing of culture and ideas across borders was not one of them.

With the East opened up to sea trade in the wake of Columbus’ recent voyages, it was also an era of braved-faith missionaries.

After founding the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) with Ignatius, Francis Xavier was ordained and set out for the unbaptized of the East. Landing in India, he built up the faith among the people of Goa so firmly that the area is still known, nearly 500 years later, as the Catholic center of the teeming continent. Francis continued to Japan, spreading the faith amid threats to his life. He baptized many in Nagasaki, once called the Rome of the East, where Jesuits had a missionary center that was unharmed when the atom bomb struck in 1945.

With his eyes on the ancient yet advanced nation of China, Francis Xavier, worn and ill at age 46, died on an island off the Chinese mainland in 1552. His was a life in full, dedicated to the faith and ordered to the challenges of the day. Francis could have stayed among the educated classes in Paris, or taken over the family castle in Spain. But he knew that a new age of exploration had opened at his feet, and discerned in the Ignatian way that this was no time for scholarly or gentlemanly repose. God had forged a way to the East and countless souls were ripe for Baptism. He did not assume an “invincible ignorance” on the part of the Eastern populations, or posit a “baptism of desire” that would get them into heaven. He went knowing full well he would never return and baptized upwards of 50,000 individuals, instructing them in prayer and the basics of the faith. He prayed for helpers in this heroic mission, but few responded.

In the Divine Office, the reading for his feast day is one of my favorites. We can hear the voice of St. Francis Xavier pleading with us today. In a letter from Goa to St. Ignatius in Rome, he wrote:

“I have not stopped since the day I arrived. I conscientiously made the rounds of the villages. I bathed in the sacred waters all of the children who had not yet been baptized … Many, many people hereabouts are not becoming Christians for one reason only: there is nobody to make them Christians. Again and again I have thought of going round the universities of Europe, especially Paris, and everywhere crying out like a madman, riveting the attention of those with more learning than charity: ‘What a tragedy! How many souls are being shut out of heaven and falling into hell, thanks to you!’ I wish they would work as hard at this as they do on their books …”

Today, we need not travel far to find mission territory. The pews are depopulating, parish churches and parochial schools are closing all around us. The mission field may be the fallen away Catholics on our street, or the lukewarm members of our own family. In the bold spirit of St. Francis Xavier, can we make a resolution to ask at least one person back to church this Christmas? St. Francis called it an act of charity to tell people about the Catholic faith. When done with love and joy, it is charity, indeed.

In this season of giving, we need to ask ourselves, “How many souls are being shut out of heaven and falling into hell, thanks to you!”