Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Journeying Jesuit:
The Many Missions of St. Francis Xavier

"For there is danger that when the Lord God calls your Highness to his judgment, you may hear angry words from Him, 'Why did you not punish those who were your subjects and who were enemies to me in India?'"
-St. Francis Xavier in an angry letter to King John III of Portugal, chastising the King for his Christian nobleman's ill treatment of Indian slaves.

St. Francis Xavier, the patron saint of missionaries and one of St. Ignatius Loyola's original band of seven Jesuits, logged perhaps more sea miles than Columbus in his quest for Christian converts. And between his frugal means and the harshness of 16th century ocean travel, it can be said that, while he wasn't exactly a martyr, he certainly did it the hard way.

After a short career as a secular nobleman, Francis met Ignatius, another officer of noble birth, who convinced the fellow Spaniard to instead become a soldier of Christ. The band of seven were ordained priests in 1534, but it wasn't until his 35th birthday, April 7, 1541, that Francis set sail on his fateful trip to India, and the eleven years he spent in the East would change the world forever.

Although Francis' last years were in some ways an endless journey, he barely survived his maiden voyage. Riding on the Portuguese flagship, Francis' vessel contained the new governor of India, his crew, European merchants, as well as slaves and convicts, and Francis' prayers and preaching were the only thing that held the crew together through a 13-month trip of cramped conditions, scurvy and brawls. But that was nothing compared to the colonial abuses Francis found in India itself, where the Christian-in-name-only Portuguese masters actually counted (on their rosaries) the blows they gave their frequently flogged slaves.

While the indefatigable Francis didn't have great success with either the wealthy Europeans or rich Indians, the poor natives (and all children) loved him, and his inspired preaching and life of poverty converted many. One of the greatest stories in Francis' string of Indian successes came in Travancore, a settlement that was originally converted by the apostle Thomas. He was immediately received there with joy (the people still had faith but no priests) but the joy turned to jubilation when Francis turned back a marauding northern tribe with only prayer and a crucifix.

Francis then turned his thoughts to the far East, where Christ had never before been preached.

After some initial success in Nagasaki, Xavier went to Miyako to see the Japanese Emperor himself. Told he could not meet him (or remain in Japan) without a monetary gift that far exceeded the missionary's modest means, the innovative Xavier instead presented the Emperor with a music box, a pair of spectacles and a clock. The amazed ruler was so dazzled by these inventions, he not only let Xavier stay, but gave him an old Buddhist monastery and let him preach unimpeded. Within months, Francis had baptized 2,000 enthusiastic Japanese, and he now set his sights on the biggest fish in the East, the mainland of China.

But the long trips and harsh life was catching up to Francis, and while awaiting passage to China, he grew very ill. When the ship finally arrived, Francis tried to make the trip anyway, but he became so seasick the crew unceremoniously dumped him on shore. There Francis began to bleed profusely, and died in the arms of a faithful Chinese servant named Antony who insisted on getting off the boat with him. The man who converted thousands was then buried in a strange land with only four souls (including two slaves) attending his funeral.

Besides his great impact on the Indians and Japanese, Francis has left his mark on both the O'Tooles and the Irish. My son Gary's birthday is also Francis' feast day, and now that "Navy" Gary too is a soldier of the sea, Xavier's patronage of Gary as he turns twenty seems only natural. Especially since the simple servant Antony (Gary Anthony O'Toole's namesake saint) was the one who cared for Francis when he was left for dead ...

As for the SFX/Notre Dame connection? It involves that truly famous Irish grad who, as a Hollywood personality, has led countless entertainment missions himself. You know him as Regis, but his full name is (you guessed it) Regis Francis Xavier Philbin. In Hannah Storm's Notre Dame Inspirations (see previous review), Regis describes his early globe trotting days before he made the big time. A sports show in Denver, a talk show in St. Louis, a morning show in Chicago ... and finally in 1974, an interview for the national show "Good Morning America!" Regis thought he had the gig sown up, but instead was turned down. Despondent, he went back to visit Notre Dame, and there his spirit was revived and he soon went on to his current fame and fortune.

But as many others in the book, Regis is vague about the source of his ND inspirations, "Everything that's good and decent and fair is right there on that campus," Philbin pontificates. "I can feel it in the air." Let's pray that the Holy Spirit inspires Regis to denote something a bit more concrete -- say Jesus Christ and Our Lady -- when he next talks about the positive forces of his favorite university. And, if St. Francis Xavier really wants to have some fun, he can get that other ND grad (you know, that Champions of Faith author) a booking on "Live with Regis and Kelly ..."

1 comment :

JimAroo said...

Thanks for the profile of one my favorites, St. Francis Xavier. The patroness of missionaries is the Little Flower, a cloistered Carmelite, who never went further than Rome! So we who pray are missionaries too. Let us all pray for a revival of the church's missionary spirit especially in the East. May Catholics there have the courage and fortitude of St Francis Xavier and preach the Gospel to all.