Today is the Feast of St. Francis Xavier SJ. I remember in March of 2013 while returning from a meeting of the priests of the deanery, the radio announced that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a Jesuit, had been elected and taken the name Pope Francis. My first thought was, “that’s a great choice to take the name of one of the amazing saints of the Jesuit order, Francis Xavier, one of the church’s most widely traveled missionaries. I remember thinking that it was a sign that the universal (katholica) church would increasingly focus its attention on the world of the southern hemisphere.
For many centuries the Catholic Church’s focus was centered in Europe and North America. There is a drastic shift in the proportion of the Catholic population to the southern hemisphere leading to new spiritual and social expressions of the faith. Philip Jenkins thoroughly explains this shift in The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. And now Pope Francis Xavier would refocus the church’s (Vatican) attention more widely. Of course, as we know and I was to discover later than same March day, Bergoglio had taken St. Francis of Assisi as his namesake. Perhaps an even more awesome choice (…. but I would have to admit to some bias in such an assessment.)
Francis Xavier was one of the original seven men, who with St. Ignatius of Loyola started the Jesuit Order (Society of Jesus) in 1540. By 1542 he arrived in India as a missionary to the Portuguese and the indigenous people of Goa. The Spanish-born priest led extensive missions into Asia, mainly in the Portuguese Empire of the time. He was very influential in evangelization work, most notably in Goa India. He also was the first Christian missionary to venture into Japan, Borneo, the Maluku Islands, and other areas. Xavier was about to extend his missionary preaching to China when he died on Shangchuan Island.
I just look at the chart of his voyages which encompass 10 years – just 10 years of missionary endeavors. The languages he learned, the seeds of the Word of God he spread. The words of today’s gospel for the feast, are well applied to Francis Xavier:
“Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock.” (Mt 7:24-25)
In 1927, Pope Pius XI published the decree “Apostolicorum in Missionibus” naming Francis Xavier, along with Thérèse of Lisieux, co-patron of all foreign missions.