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Saint Francis Xavier

Category: Religious

Francis Xavier, born Francisco de Jasso y Azpilicueta (7 April 1506 – 3 December 1552), was a Roman Catholic missionary born in Xavier, Kingdom of Navarre (now part of Spain), and co-founder of the Society of Jesus.   He was a student of Ignatius of Loyola and one of the first seven Jesuits, dedicated at Montmartre in 1534. As the foremost saint from Navarre and one of the main Jesuit saints, he is much venerated in Spain and the Hispanic countries where Francisco Javier or Javier are common male given names.

He had a somewhat traumatic childhood. Francis' father died when Francis was only nine years old. In 1516, Francis' brothers participated in a failed Navarrese-French attempt to expel the Spanish invaders from the kingdom, and the Spanish Castilian kingdom's Governor Cardinal Cisneros ordered the confiscation of all family lands, and the virtual demolition of their home.  There are hints that this trauma sent Francis into a spiral of mental decay.  There are even hints that he became a manic depressive.

The word missionary sends shivers of horror through anyone of spiritual tendencies, as such it is worth looking into what Francis Xavier actually did [and achieved] and it is not as horrific as it at first appears. 

Miguel Cabrera - Saint Francis Xavier

The Portuguese had established themselves at Goa thirty years earlier than Francis’s first missionary journey to India and  Francis' primary mission, as ordered by King John III, was to restore Christianity among the Portuguese settlers. In effect, the settlers had abandoned all decent standards of behaviour.  In fact the settlers were tending to “shock and alienate the natives by their behavior”, so his first and principle challenge was to stop his fellow Portugeuse from being a pain in the neck to the locals.

So, he went back to basics and started to give the Portuguese lessons in the principles of faith and good behaviour.  He also spent much of his time teaching their children, on the principle that if you get them young, you are assured of more success. His mornings were usually spent in tending and comforting ‘the distressed’ in hospital and prison; after that, he walked through the streets ringing a bell to summon the children to lessons.

He made numerous attempts to convert the locals in India and Ceylon to Christianity, building churches and establishing missionary outposts, but was almost entirely unsuccessful “Francis had difficulty achieving much success in his missionary trips.”  One reason it appears was that he was just too nice.  Later more political, dogmatic, ruthless and aggressive missionaries had much more ‘success’ [as they do].  Given that the Hindu religion is older than Catholicism, probably contains a far more accurate view of the spiritual world and is infinitely more open about such things as sex, it is hardly surprising he failed.  And he appears to have realised he was fighting on a losing wicket.  One of his most troublesome problems was “the concubinage openly practiced by Europeans of all ranks with the native women”. Xavier tried to meet the situation by methods that were ‘pragmatic, sensible, humane, and tactful’ – he let it be.

Francis was as spectacularly unsuccessful in Japan, Borneo, and the Maluku Islands. It was a goal of Xavier to one day reach China.  Why, given his complete lack of success elsewhere, we do not know.  Everywhere he went, he was politely received, treated well but told he wasn’t wanted.    His only real conversion was a Japanese man who had murdered someone.

As a representative of the Portuguese king, he was received in a friendly manner. Shimazu Takahisa (1514–1571), daimyo of Satsuma, for example, gave a friendly reception to Francis on 29 September 1549, but in the following year he forbade the conversion of his subjects to Christianity under penalty of death.

Like all Christian missionaries [and Moslem ones] he made absolutely no effort to understand the beliefs of those he preached to and thus learnt very little from the people he visited. As such everywhere he went, he was at a loss to explain why no one was interested.  He appeared to fail to understand that the Shinto, Buddhist, Hindu and other faiths have quite a lot to teach those of Christian beliefs.  The following is hilarious

The Japanese people were not easily converted; many of the people were already Buddhist or Shinto. Francis tried to combat the disposition of some of the Japanese that a God who had created everything, including evil, could not be good. The concept of Hell was also a struggle; the Japanese were bothered by the idea of their ancestors living in Hell”

I bet they were.  But the dogged little chap was unshaken on his own beliefs and
“felt that they were good people, much like Europeans, and could be converted”

At which point any sane individual would have questioned his own beliefs and asked why convert them, but, no, Francis carried on.  According to the Catholic Church, the number of people converted directly and indirectly to Christianity by Francis Xavier was around 30,000. If we allow for a little exaggeration on their part it is worth putting this in context.  The O2 Arena in  Greenwich London holds 20,000 people.

But despite his idiosyncrasies, Francis did at least learn the local languages and made a point of insisting that his missionary workers adapt to local customs, and understand the culture they wish to evangelize, even if he didn’t ask them to understand the beliefs. And unlike later missionaries, Xavier supported an educated native clergy.

Francis died at Shangchuan from a fever on 3 December 1552, while he was waiting for a boat that would agree to take him to mainland China.

Why is he on this site?  Because he had one recorded vision and it is lovely.

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