03 December 2012

With the Saints through Advent (4): 3 December, Saint Francis Xavier, patron of missions

André Reinoso, The Miracle of Saint Francis Xavier (1619) at the Santa Casa de Misericórdia de Lisboa / Museu de São Roque, Lisbon, Portugal

Patrick Comerford

As we move into Advent, we need to remind ourselves that this is a season of Advent. Thursday last was a Day of Prayer in many Anglican churches for mission, and today [Monday 3 December 2012] is the feastday of Saint Francis Xavier, the patron saint of European missionaries, who is said to have preached to more people than anyone else since Saint Paul.

As we journey through Advent with the saints, Saint Francis Xavier is a reminder that this is a time not merely of waiting for but preparing for the coming of Christ and his Kingdom.

Saint Francis Xavier (1506-1552), or Francisco do Yasu y Javier, was a Basque missionary who was born on 7 April 1506 in his family’s castle at Xavier, near Pamplona in what is now the Basque Country in northern Spain.

He went to study at the University of Paris in 1525, and there he earned his licentiate in 1528. In Paris he also met Ignatius Loyola and they were two of the seven founders of the Society of Jesus of Jesuits at Montmartre in 1534. Together, the seven made the famous vow of Montmartre on 15 August 1534.

In 1536, Francis left Paris to join Ignatius in Venice. They and their companions hoped to set out from Venice as missionaries to Palestine, but the planned journey never materialised. Instead, Francis Xavier and Ignatius Loyola were ordained in Venice on 24 June 1537.

From Venice, Francis went to Rome in 1538. There in 1540, the Pope formally recognised the Society of Jesus and decided to send Francis Xavier and Father Simon Rodriguez to the Far East as the first Jesuit missionaries. However, King John III of Portugal kept Father Simon in Lisbon.

During a year-long voyage, Francis spent six months of which in Mozambique, were he preached and gave aid to the sick. Eventually, he arrived in Goa on the west coast of India on 6 May 1542 with his two companions, Father Paul of Camerino, an Italian, and Francis Mansihas, from Portugal.

In Goa, Francis began to preach to the local people but also tried to reform his fellow Europeans, He also adopted a lifestyle of living among the local and adopting their customs on his travels.

He visited the prisons and the hospitals in Goa, led worship among the lepers, and walked the streets ringing a bell to call the children for religious instruction. His principal method of teaching people was to write verses in their language, setting out the truths of Christianity, and then setting them to music.

He was shocked to find the Portuguese settlers and soldiers in the colony were brutal in their treatment of the local people. He complained in writing to the King of Portugal: “It is possible that when our Lord God calls your highness to his judgement that your highness may hear angry words from him: ‘Why did you not punish those who were your subjects and owned your authority, and were enemies to me in India?’”

During the next decade, Saint Francis converted tens of thousands of people to Christianity. He visited the Paravas at the tip of India, near Cape Comorin, Tuticorin (1542), Malacca, which was also a Portuguese colony (1545), the Moluccas near New Guinea and Morotai near the Philippines (1546-1547), before arriving in Japan (1549-1551).

In Japan, he learned the language, where he was the first person to preach the Gospel. In Japan, it is said, he made as many as 2,000 converts.

In 1551, the Jesuits established India and the East as a separate province and Saint Ignatius appointed Saint Francis the first provincial. In 1552, he set out for China. He landed on the island of Shangchuan, but he died there on 3 December 1552 before ever reaching the Chinese mainland. He was only 46. His body was brought back to Goa and buried there.

Throughout his life as a missionary, Saint Francis Xavier worked in the face of great difficulties. Despite language problems, no proficiency in languages, the shortage of priest companions as fellow workers, inadequate funds, constant lack of co-operation and the actual resistance of European officials, he left the mark of his missionary zeal and energy on areas that remained loyal to Christianity for centuries.

Saint Francis Xavier once wrote to Saint Ignatius Loyola:

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 around the universities of Europe, especially Paris, and crying out to the scholars: “What a tragedy: how many souls are being shut out of heaven, thanks to you!”

The estimates of the number of converts that he personally baptised vary, but some put them at six-figures. One biographer says he preached to more people than anyone else since the New Testament period.

He was canonised in 1622 and Pope Pius X later proclaimed him the patron of all foreign missions. But Francis Xavier is also a pre-Reformation saint who can be shared by the universal church – he arrived in Japan even before the publication of the first Book of Common Prayer.

He is commemorated on this day in the Calendar in Common Worship in the Church of England, in the Calendar of the Episcopal Church in the US, in other Anglican and Lutheran churches, and in the calendar of the Roman Catholic Church.

Saint Francis Xavier Church in Gardiner Street, Dublin

A Dublin connection
Saint Francis Xavier Church, on Gardiner Street, near Mountjoy Square, is a celebrated Jesuit church in Dublin. The church was designed by the Jesuit Father Bartholomew Esmonde and erected by the architect Joseph B. Keane as a Classical cut granite stone essay. The first stone was laid on 2 July 1829, the year of Catholic Emancipation, and the church was opened on 3 May 1832.

In her book Dublin, the architectural historian and critic says this is “the most elegant church of the period in Dublin.” The funeral of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was held here in 1889, and the church features in James Joyce’s short story ‘Grace’ in Dubliners.


Zephaniah 3: 9-10, 14-18a; Psalm 86:1-6; Ephesians 4: 5-6a; Matthew 28: 16-20.


Almighty and everlasting God, we thank you for your Servant Francis, whom you called to preach the Gospel to the peoples of Asia. Raise up, we pray, in this and every land heralds and evangelists of your kingdom, that your Church may proclaim the unsearchable riches of our Saviour Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Tomorrow (4 December): Saint John of Damascus and Saint Barbara.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

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