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Francis Xavier, a Missionary Beyond the Borders

Nuno da Silva Gonçalves, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Tue, Dec 3rd 2019

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In a homily delivered in Manila on November 29, 1970, Saint Paul VI stated: “I would never have come from Rome to this far-distant land unless I had been most firmly convinced of two fundamental things: first, of Christ; and second, of your salvation.” He added: “The more distant the goal, the more difficult my mission, the more pressing is the love that urges me to it.”[1] Saint Francis Xavier could have said the same words. For him, too, the motives were Christ and the salvation of the people. Thus he was not afraid to consider the most distant and difficult goal as the most urgent. With this enthusiasm he proclaimed the Gospel in India, in Malacca (Malaysia), in the Moluccas (Indonesia) and in Japan. Only death stopped him when he tried to enter China, his last great missionary dream.

Xavier felt himself to be primarily an instrument in the hands of God. He wrote: “I trust that Christ our Lord will make me understand and grant the grace to use me, this useless instrument to establish His faith among the pagans.”[2] Nevertheless, he knew that this “useless instrument” had been sent onmission by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, at the request of John III, King of Portugal. Xavier established a frank relationship with Ignatius, both by informing him of the obstacles he had to face and by expressing his gratitude for the help he had received.

In fact, together with Simón Rodrigues, Xavier had been sent to Portugal, accepting the invitation of John III, one of the Lusitanian monarchs most eager to seek missionaries for the proclamation of the Gospel in India. Xavier and Rodrigues arrived in Lisbon in 1540; but, while Xavier left for the East in 1541, Rodrigues remained in Portugal, where he became the first provincial of the Society of Jesus, engaging in the formation of young Jesuits, many of whom were sent on mission to the East. Others were sent to America and Africa. For example, in 1549, the same year that Francis Xavier arrived in Japan, six Jesuits, led by Fr Manuel da Nobrega, were sent to Brazil, in what would be the first mission of the Society of Jesus in the New World.

The missionary spirituality of Saint Francis Xavier

In Saint Francis Xavier we recognize a missionary who has always wanted to go further, looking for the greatest fruit. His desire for greater service is translated into several and repeated expressions: “to bear great fruit”; “to bear infinite fruit”; “to greatly increase the boundaries of the Holy Mother Church”; “to do much service to God our Lord”; “to increase our holy faith”; “to increase the law of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Let us now see in detail the context in which he uses these expressions, so typical of those who were trained in the school of the Spiritual Exercises.

In 1541, in Lisbon, just before his departure for Goa, Xavier wrote to Ignatius: “We are leaving this week for the Indies and we hope in God our Lord to obtain great fruit thanks to the great disposition that there is in those lands for the conversion of souls, according to what all those who have been there for many years tell us.”[3]

In 1545 he wrote from Kochi to Fr. Simón Rodrigues – who had stayed in Lisbon – asking for more missionaries, and he gave the following justification: “Send many people to India because they will be able to greatly increase the boundaries of Holy Mother Church.”[4]

But his desire to expand the boundaries of the Church did not concern only India, Malacca or the Moluccas: toward Japan and China his enthusiasm was even stronger and more determined. Therefore, in 1548 he wrote: “Some Portuguese merchants, men of great credit, gave me great news of some recently discovered very large islands, which are called Islands of Japan and where, in their opinion, much fruit would be obtained in increasing our holy faith, more than in any other part of India. The people there are extremely hungry for knowledge, unlike the pagans of India. All the Portuguese merchants who come from Japan tell me that if I were there I would do a great service to God our Lord, more than to the pagans of India, being people of great wisdom. From what I have been feeling within my soul, it seems to me that I or someone in the Society will be going to Japan before two years, even though it is a journey with many dangers, both because of the great storms and because of the Chinese pirates who raid at sea leading to the loss of many ships.”[5]

This attention to what he felt in his soul – a process of true spiritual discernment – led Xavier to the decision to go to Japan. In 1549 he communicated this to Saint Ignatius: “I have decided to go to this land with great inner satisfaction; it seems to me that among these people, thanks to themselves, the fruit that we members of the Society will produce during our lives can be perpetuated.”[6] These words constitute a true prophecy, if we think that, after the expulsion of the missionaries and the persecution of Christians from the 17th to the 19th century, Christianity in Japan would survive without any external contact, that is, using the words of Xavier, it would have been perpetuated “thanks to themselves.”

A few months after his arrival in Japan, Francis Xavier continues to be confident and he even thinks of going further, writing: “Nowhere else among those who have been discovered, it seems to me that as much fruit can be obtained as in these lands, nor that the Society [can] perpetuate itself if it is not in China or Japan.”[7]

Always prepared to broaden the boundaries of his missionary activity and increasingly convinced of the importance of China, Xavier plans this trip for 1552. In fact, that year he wrote to the Jesuits of Europe: “I believe that in this year (1552) I will go where the king of China is because it is a land where the law of our Lord Jesus Christ can be greatly increased; and if they were to accept it there, it would be a great help so that in Japan they would no longer trust the sects in which they believe.”[8]

The profile of the missionaries according to Saint Francis Xavier

Xavier not only opened up new paths, but he was also an excellent organizer. The companions who were added, whether they came from Europe or were recruited on the spot, were distributed to the new Christian communities, often with very precise instructions, so that they could continue the work begun. In this regard, it is worth recalling the indications that the Apostle of the East gave on the qualities necessary for missionaries.

The portrait of the ideal missionary clearly changes according to the regions to which Xavier refers. For the regions of India, he wrote to Saint Ignatius in 1545, “bodily strength along with spiritual forces” were necessary; however, only a little education and learning was necessary, because missionary work was centered on the teaching of prayers, visits to villages and the baptism of children.[9]

In 1546 Xavier reminded the Jesuits of Europe that the will to live and die among the local populations was more important than studies and intellectual abilities.[10] In 1549 he was even clearer, listing, in a letter to Saint Ignatius, the indispensable characteristics of the missionary: “For those who have to go among the infidels waiting for their conversion, not much education and learning is necessary, but many virtues are: obedience, humility, perseverance, patience, love of neighbor and great chastity for the many occasions there are to sin.”[11]

He asked Simón Rodrigues to join him that same year in the East and not to bring companions who were too young: “Here in fact we desire men over thirty years old up to forty who are in possession of all the virtues such as humility, gentleness, patience and above all chastity.”[12]

For the cities of Goa and Kochi, Xavier asked for Jesuits who had the talent to hear confessions and give the Spiritual Exercises[13]; and for the Portuguese fortresses in the East, preachers capable of catechizing the various groups present there.[14]

As for the missionaries to be sent to Japan and China, Xavier requires some particular qualities. The missionaries destined for these two countries must have an excellent intellectual preparation, “so as to be able to answer the many questions that the judicious and shrewd pagans like the Chinese and the Japanese ask.”[15]

For the missionaries to be sent to Japan, he particularly recommended that they must have tried and experienced the persecutions of the world, and added: “It would be good if they were good philosophers and it would not be bad if they had dialectical skill, to catch the Japanese in contradiction during the disputes. They should also know something about the celestial sphere as the Japanese are very happy to know the movements of the sky, the eclipses of the sun, the waxing and waning of the moon; how rainwater, snow and hail, thunder, lightning, comets and other natural phenomena originate. The explanation of these things is very useful for gaining the benevolence of the people.”[16]

With these recommendations of 1552 concerning the qualities of the missionaries, Francis Xavier – as he had done during all his years in the East – continued to open up ways that many other generations of Jesuits would then follow. In fact, his influence continued through successive groups of missionaries who reached different and even more distant regions and who had the Apostle of the East as their inspirational model.

This rapid expansion led to the establishment of the Society of Jesus and Christianity in Goa, the Malabar Coast, Japan and China, and shows the fascination that the missions, especially in the East, exerted on many generations of Jesuits. What was already established in the Formula of the Society of Jesus, approved by Pope Paul III in 1540, was implemented. This included the willingness to be sent anywhere in the world, to the faithful or infidels, as well as “to other infidels existing in the regions that we call The Indies.”[17]

This availability is well documented by some 16,000 letters written between 1583 and 1770 kept in the Roman Archive of the Society of Jesus in which Jesuits asked Father General to be sent on mission.

In 1552, the year of the death of Saint Francis Xavier, Matteo Ricci, the first Jesuit to settle in Beijing, was born in Macerata, Italy. These are two events that a person in 1552 could not have connected; but in reality it was Ricci who, in 1601, almost 50 years later, completed the missionary journey that Xavier had conceived and that was interrupted by his death when he was on the verge of entering China.


DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 3, no. 10, art. 7, 2019: 10.32009/22072446.1910.7

[1]. Paul VI, Homily at Holy Mass at the “Quezon Circle”, Manila, November 29, 1970, in https://w2.vatican.va/content/paul-vi/en/homilies/1970/documents/hf_p-vi_hom_19701129.html

[2]. F. Xavier, “Lettera ai compagni residenti in Roma” Goa, September 20, 1542, in Id., Dalle terre dove sorge il sole. Lettere e documenti dall’Oriente 1535-1552, Rome, Città Nuova, 2002, 91ff. The following letters are all found in this volume.

[3]. Id., “Lettera ai padri Ignazio di Loyola e Giovanni Coduri” (Lisbon, March 18, 1541), 75.

[4]. Id., “Lettera al p. Simón Rodrigues” (Cochín, January 27, 1545), 172.

[5]. Id., “Lettera ai compagni residenti in Roma” (Cochín, January 20, 1548), 208-210.

[6]. Id., “Lettera al p. Ignazio di Loyola” (Cochín, January 12, 1549), 239.

[7]. Id., “Lettera al p. Paolo” (Kagoshima, November 5, 1549), 343.

[8]. Id., “Lettera ai compagni residenti in Europa” (Cochín, January 29, 1552), 372ff.

[9]. Id, “Lettera a Ignazio di Loyola” (Cochín, January 27, 1545), 163.

[10]. Id, “Lettera ai compagni residenti in Europa” (Amboina, May 10, 1546), 191.

[11]. Id., “Lettera al p. Ignazio di Loyola” (Cochín, January 14, 1549), 245.

[12]. Id., “Lettera al p. Simón Rodrigues” (Cochín, February 2, 1549), 272.

[13]. Id, “Lettera a Ignazio di Loyola” (Cochín, January 7, 1545), 164.

[14]. Id, “Lettera al p. Simón Rodrigues” (Cochín, January 20, 1548), 226.

[15]. Id., “Lettera a Giovanni III, re del Portogallo” (Goa, April 8, 1552), 419.

[16]. Id., “Lettera al p. Ignazio di Loyola” (Goa, April 9, 1552), 422ff.

[17]. Formula of the Society of Jesus, No. 3.

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