St. Francis Xavier, Confessor of the Society of Jesus
by Father Francis Xavier Weninger, 1876
St. Francis Xavier,--the great Apostle of the Indies, as he is called in the Bull of his canonization--the celebrated Thaumaturgus of the 16th century, the irreproachable witness of the truth of our holy religion, the ornament of the Society of Jesus, and of the entire Catholic Church,--was of royal lineage, and was born of illustrious parents, at the Castle of Xavier, in the kingdom of Navarre. Having passed his childhood, he was sent to the University of Paris, to study the liberal arts, for which he evinced an especial inclination. He applied himself so diligently and made so much progress, that he was not only created Doctor of Philosophy, but also appointed to instruct others in that science. All his aim was to gain honors and to become great in the eyes of the world. His father intended to recall him home after some years, but his sister, who was Prioress in the Convent of the Poor Clares at Gandia, and had the reputation of being a Saint, knew by divine inspiration the great work for which her brother was destined by the Almighty, and persuaded her father not to insist on his return, saying, in a prophetic manner, that Francis was chosen to become the apostle of many nations.
Whilst Xavier was teaching at Paris, St. Ignatius came to the same city to finish his studies. Knowing, by divine inspiration, how much good Francis, who was so highly gifted by the Almighty, would be able to do for the salvation of souls, he sought the friendship of the young Professor, and gradually showed him the emptiness of all temporal greatness, and drew him from his eagerness to obtain worldly honors by repeating the earnest words of Christ: "What will it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?" These words of our Saviour, coming from the lips of a St. Ignatius, so deeply pierced the heart of Xavier, and made so indelible an impression, that he became entirely converted. Taking St. Ignatius as his guide, he followed his precepts, and after having most fervently gone through the "Spiritual Exercises," he resolved to devote himself, with Ignatius, to the greater glory of God. On the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, in the year 1534, Ignatius, Xavier, and five others, made a vow in the Church of Montmartre; at Paris, to consecrate their lives to the salvation of souls. Soon after, Xavier, by the order of St. Ignatius, went with some of these zealous men to Italy.
At the very beginning of this journey, which was to be performed on foot, Xavier gave a striking proof of the ardor of his spirit. Before his conversion he had been a great lover of dancing and gymnastic exercises; and so greatly excelled in them, that he had taken great pride in these accomplishments. To punish this vanity, he tied his arms and ankles so tightly with small knotted cords, that he could not make the least motion without pain. After the first day's march his pains became so intense that he swooned away and was forced to reveal the cause. The cords had cut so deep into the flesh that they could hardly be seen. The surgeon who was called, declared that a painful operation was necessary to cut the cords out of the flesh. Xavier and his companions not wishing to be delayed on their way, prayed for aid from on High; and on the following morning they found not only the cords broken, but all the wounds entirely healed. Having given due thanks to the Almighty for this miracle, they continued their journey.
At Venice, Francis spent two months in the hospital, nursing the sick most tenderly. While there it happened that he found, among the sick, one who was suffering from a loathsome ulcer. Xavier felt a natural repugnance to approach the poor patient, but, recollecting the maxim of St. Ignatius, "Conquer thyself," he unhesitatingly went to the sick, embraced him kindly, and putting his lips to the ulcer, cleansed it of all offensive matter. As a reward for so heroic a victory over self, God restored the sick man's health, and took from St. Xavier all repugnance to the most hideous forms of disease. Two months after this he was ordained priest, and said his first holy Mass, amid a flood of tears, after having prepared himself for it by forty days of solitude, many prayers, austere fasting and other penances. At Rome, whither he was called by St. Ignatius, he preached for a time with great success. It was at this period that John III., King of Portugal, requested the Pope to send him six of the disciples of St. Ignatius, for the Indies. St. Ignatius, on account of the small number of his followers, gave only two, Simon Rodriguez and Nicholas Bobadilla; but as the latter fell ill just before the time appointed for setting out, Francis Xavier, whom heaven had selected for this mission, was sent in his stead.
No tongue can tell the joy with which the Saint received this news, which fulfilled what had been shown him, years before, in a mysterious dream. It had appeared to him, in his sleep, that he had a negro on his shoulders, whom he was obliged to carry, and that he was so fatigued as to sink to the ground under his burden. He then awoke and found himself in truth covered with perspiration and extremely tired. He was soon prepared for his journey from Rome to Lisbon, whence he was to sail for the Indies; and having received from St. Ignatius valuable instructions, and from the Vicar of Christ the papal blessing, with the powers of an Apostolic Nuncio, he set out with his companion, Rodriguez, carrying nothing with him but the crucifix on his breast, his breviary under his arm, and his staff in his hand. At the holy house of Loretto, where he stopped on his way, he commended his important mission to his divine Mother, and begged with childlike trust for her motherly assistance. Feeling in his heart that his prayer had been heard, he was greatly comforted, on leaving this blessed spot.
After a wearisome journey, he at length arrived at Lisbon, where he took up his lodgings at the hospital, instead of going to the royal palace, where rooms had been prepared for him. Whilst awaiting an opportunity to depart for the Indies, he employed his time so usefully in hearing confessions, giving spiritual instructions, and serving the sick, that the king desired to retain him and his companion in Lisbon, and even wrote to that effect to St. Ignatius. But the Almighty, who had ordained that St. Francis Xavier should become the Apostle of the Indies, inspired St. Ignatius to suggest that Simon Rodriguez should remain in Lisbon, and Xavier be given to the Indies. Hence the Saint embarked with two other priests, whom he had received into the Society of Jesus. Nine hundred persons were in the same ship, many of whom became sick during the long voyage. Xavier became invaluable to them; he nursed the sick day and night, solicitous for their bodily as well as for their spiritual welfare, while he preached daily to those who were well, and led them by kind discourses to a Christian life. He continued these exercises of his charity and zeal at Mozambique, in Africa, where the vessel remained during the winter. His brief rest at night he took upon a coil of rope, or on the bare floor. He landed at Goa, the capital of the Indies, thirteen months after having sailed from Lisbon. Although a large portion of India had formerly been converted to Christ by the holy Apostle St. Thomas, the Christian religion had almost entirely perished by reason of wars and invasions and through the commerce and association of the inhabitants with the Turks, Saracens, and heathens. The Portuguese, also to whom a great part of the land was now tributary, were in their conduct rather heathens than Christians.
St. Xavier began his apostolic labors at Goa, which still preserved the memory of a celebrated prophecy, spoken by Peter of Covillan, of the Order of the Holy Trinity, in 1497, just before he was killed with arrows by the Indians. "In a few years," said this holy man, "there will arise, in the Church of God, a new religious Order which will bear the name of Jesus. One of the first priests of this holy Order will penetrate into the Indies, and convert to the true faith most of its inhabitants, by expounding to them the Word of the Lord." This memorable prophecy was fulfilled by the arrival of St. Xavier, and by the events which afterwards took place. A still more ancient prophecy of the arrival of St. Francis will be related on the 21 st of this month, in the life of the holy Apostle St. Thomas.
But to return to the apostolic labors of St. Xavier; he began, as well at Goa as at other places, by converting the youth. With a little bell in his hand, he went from street to street, and gathered the children, who ran after him in crowds. Leading them to the church, he explained to them the Christian doctrine, taught them prayers and songs, and told them to repeat at home what they had learned. Some of them he sent with his rosary to the sick, that the touch of it might, by the power of God, heal them. Some children proved little apostles and brought their own parents to the Saint that he might instruct and baptize them. Others brought him the idols of their parents or neighbors and broke them to pieces, or cast them into the fire, while others again sought the new-born children that they might not die without being baptized. When the young were sufficiently instructed, he turned his attention to the adults. To the Christians he spoke of penance and of leading a Christian life; to the infidels, of the truth of the Christian faith. He passed the whole day in giving instruction, nursing the sick, baptizing, hearing confessions, and other apostolic labors; his zeal was so great that more than once he forgot to eat or to drink, for the space of three or four days. He gave the greater part of the night to prayer.
As soon as he had converted the inhabitants of Goa, he went to Cape Comorin, and into the kingdom of Travancore. In the latter he baptized ten thousand persons with his own hand; and in the former he baptized so many, that on some days he was too much fatigued to raise his arm. Many of the idolatrous priests, called Brahmins, were convinced of their error and converted to the true faith, when they had seen four dead persons raised to life at the Saint's prayer. Many languages were spoken in these countries, all differing widely from one another; but Xavier, like the Apostles, had the gift of tongues from God. He sometimes spoke, in one language, to people of various tongues, and all understood him. At other times he preached to people in their own language, without having learned it. This rare gift, combined with the many miracles which he wrought wherever he went, made his name so celebrated in the Indies, that the inhabitants of several islands came to him and requested him to instruct them in Christianity.
The indefatigable missionary travelled from one island to another, from one country to another; for, to work and to suffer for the honor of God and the salvation of souls was his greatest joy. Never was his labor so wearisome, or his suffering so great, that he did not wish it might be greater. This was proved by the words which he spoke one night in his sleep, when he was shown the great labor and suffering that awaited him in the Indies: "Still more, O Lord! still more," cried he; "more work, more care, more suffering." At Meliapor, he visited the tomb of the holy Apostle, St. Thomas, and passed many nights there in prayer. At Malacca, one of the principal cities of the East, he converted a great many Mahommedans, Jews and heathens. One woman at this place had an only daughter, whom the holy man had baptized, together with the mother. The daughter died, and was buried. Three days later, the mother came to the Saint, and begged him to pronounce the name of the Lord over her dear child. Xavier, having offered a short prayer, said to her: "Go, thy daughter lives." The mother went, and, with the assistance of others, she opened the grave, and found her daughter living.
From Malacca he visited several islands, some of which were inhabited by cannibals. He had no fear of death, as it was his greatest desire to give his blood for the faith of Christ. It happened that the ship on which he had sailed was in great danger. The Saint, taking his crucifix, dipped it into the raging sea. The storm immediately abated, but the crucifix dropped from his hands, and sank. This loss grieved the holy man; but his sorrow was changed into great joy, when, on landing on the island of Baranura, he saw a lobster come ashore, with the crucifix in its claws. Whilst the Saint thus wandered from one island to another, St. Ignatius, sent more laborers into the vineyard of the Lord. Xavier distributed them among the different countries of India, so that the work he had begun might be continued, whilst he sought more distant regions, in which he might plant the true faith. One single priest and one lay brother accompanied him to Japan, where the Christian faith had never been preached.
Much more space than we can give would not be sufficient to relate the labors which he took on himself, the dangers he encountered, the many miracles he wrought on the possessed and the infirm, and the number of people whom he converted. Yet he was not satisfied with what he had done in the Indies and Japan, but resolved to penetrate into China, in order to preach there also the word of Christ. Before doing so, however, he thought it advisable to return from Japan to the Indies, to make provision for the future prosperity of the Church in the Japanese Empire, as also to prepare himself for a successful mission in China.
During this voyage, there arose so terrible a storm, that a small sloop, belonging to the ship in which Xavier had embarked, and fastened to it with a strong cable for greater security in those tempestuous seas, was torn away by the violence of the wind. No one could doubt that the sloop would founder, and that the fifteen souls on board of it would perish. Those who were in the ship were all in the greatest distress; but Xavier consoled them, and said: " In three days the daughter will return to the mother," that is, the sloop to the ship. His prediction was fulfilled, to the infinite amazement of all on board. But still more amazing was the fact that the fifteen persons that were in the sloop unanimously declared that Xavier had been constantly with them, and had steered the boat and comforted them. From this it was concluded that the holy man, by the omnipotence of God, had been present in two places at the same time. No sooner had he arranged everything most wisely in the Indies, than, accompanied by one lay brother, he went on board of a ship which sailed to the island of Sancian, thirty miles from the coast of China. The crew and passengers had much to suffer, on this voyage, as their supply of fresh water was exhausted. In this emergency, the Saint ordered some barrels to be filled with sea-water, and, having said a short prayer, invited the sailors to drink it. The water was found sweet: and the distress of the travellers was at an end.
The indefatigable missionary at last reached Saucian, and saw from afar the shores of the great empire into which he was determined to enter, although he was well aware that to all foreigners the entrance was forbidden, under pain of death. But here, by the unsearchable decree of God, his labors were to end. While Xavier was arming himself for new conquests in new lands, it pleased the Almighty to call him to receive his reward for the hardships he had already suffered, and the work he had already performed. Like the great Prophet and Law-giver, Moses, he saw, from a distance, the land which he was not permitted to enter. God had reserved it for the successors of St. Francis to bring the knowledge of the true faith into China.
On the 20th of November, 1552, the Saint was taken sick with a severe fever, and at the same time, had a revelation of his approaching end. He was bled, but so unskilfully, that his pains were greatly augmented. Lying in a miserable hut of interwoven branches of trees, alone and forsaken, in abject poverty, without any bodily comfort, he was undisturbed and calm, having always desired either to give his blood for the Lord, or to die in poverty. Although he was grieved that the former was denied him, he felt consoled by the deprivations of the latter, in the knowledge that it was the will of the Almighty. His eyes were continually raised on high, or fastened on the crucifix, which never left his hand. It was touching to hear him, even in the delirium of his fever, pronounce the holy names of Jesus and Mary, and the short prayers to which he had been accustomed in his days of health : Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me! Mary, show thyself a mother! O most holy Trinity!"
At length, having gazed for a time, with deep devotion, on the crucifix, he closed his eyes, bowed his head, and gave his great soul to his Master, saying: "In Thee, O Lord, have I hoped: I shall not be confounded for ever!" His death took place on a Friday, the 2d day of December, 1552. He had spent ten years in the Indies, Japan, and other pagan countries, for the salvation of souls. In this manner, the Apostle of the Indies gloriously ended his laborious life, after having travelled, barefoot, more than a hundred thousand miles, for the love of God, and for the salvation of the souls of men; having preached the Gospel in more than a hundred kingdoms and islands; having brought kings and nations into the fold of the Church, and baptized, with his own hands, so vast a number of converts, that Gregory XV., in the Bull of the Canonization of St. Francis Xavier, says that the Saint saw his spiritual children multiplied like the stars of heaven. His holy body, clad in priestly robes, was laid in a coffin, and covered with lime, that the flesh might be rapidly consumed, so that the bones might be brought back to the Indies. But after two months and a half it was found incorrupt, and exhaling the most delicious fragrance; and was taken back, with every manifestation of honor, to Goa, in the Indies, where it remains to this day, in a state of perfect preservation.
Wherever the ship, which bore the holy remains, landed, a great number of miracles were performed; especially at Malacca, which was immediately freed from a raging pestilence. The right arm, with which this great Apostle had baptized so many thousand persons, was, some years afterwards, severed from his body, and brought to Rome, where it is still kept in great honor. Whoever, even superficially, considers the above facts, will hardly be able to conceive how one man, in so short a space of time, was able to perform so great an amount of work. His indefatigable zeal to save souls, the holiness of his life, the heroism of his virtues, as also the special gifts that God conferred upon him, accomplished what, humanly speaking, was impossible.
Among the special gifts must be mentioned the gift of tongues, of which we have spoken above; as also that of prophecy, of which many examples are found in his life. The gift of working miracles he seemed to possess in an unlimited degree, so that he was sometimes called the God of Nature, and is justly styled the Thaumaturgus of modern times. Twenty-five dead persons were recalled to life by him, in testimony of the truth of the religion which he preached. It would be no easy task to find anyone, in the last three centuries, whom the Almighty endowed with such graces as He bestowed on St. Francis Xavier. He had chosen him as an Apostle for many nations. Wherefore, as Pope Urban VIII. said, He bestowed on him all the gifts that distinguished the Apostles. "Xavier," says this Pope, "was a truly holy and divinely chosen Apostle of new nations ; and God made him celebrated throughout the whole world by miracles and prophecies." "He has not done less than the Apostles of Christ," says Gregory XV. The miracles of St. Francis ceased not at his death, and many occur yet in all parts of the world, when his intercession is invoked with piety and confidence. Whole books are filled with accounts of them.
And now we should say something of the heroic virtues of our Saint; but space is wanting. We can only advise our readers to peruse the fuller biographies of this Saint, where they will find an account of his burning love to God, his purity of conscience, his devotion to the Saviour, his self-abnegation, his veneration for the Blessed Virgin and other Saints, his heroic patience, his austerity towards himself, his deep humility, and lastly, his zeal in leading souls to heaven. I will only add here that even several non-Catholic authors speak in high terms of the Saint, and not only extol his zeal, but also relate the miracles he performed. "If Xavier had been of our religion, we should esteem him another St. Paul," writes Baldaeus. And again: "Who is his equal in performing miracles?" Others speak of him in the same manner. When the heretics saw that the praise of St. Xavier reflected favorably on the Society of Jesus, some of them, in the last century, pretended to doubt that he had been a member of the Society, and others openly maintained that he had not. This untruth, which is in direct opposition to the evidence given by so many historians, found its way even into the minds of some Catholics. To refute it, we have only to read, without speaking of the bull of canonization, the letters of St. Xavier to St. Ignatius and other Jesuits, which furnish a hundred proofs, that he always lived in the Society of Jesus, and died in it. Let us only read the Roman Martyrology, which says: " In the island of Sancian, the memory of St. Francis Xavier, of the Society of Jesus, Apostle of the Indies, who was highly celebrated on account of converting the heathens, and his great gifts and the miracles he wrought."