A blessed friendship

St Ignatius and St Francis Xavier, very different people to start with,
were both called by God to chart a new way of religious life.


By Fr Tom Renshaw SJ, Rector, Saint Ignatius’ College Riverview

Last month marked the 402nd anniversary of the canonisation of Saints Ignatius of Loyola and Francis Xavier. These two outstanding Jesuit priests were recognised as saints of the universal Church by Pope Gregory XV on 12 March 1622.

Three other outstanding Christians were also recognised as saints on that day: Saint Teresa of Avila, who helped reform the Carmelites; Saint Philip Neri, the founder of the Oratorians; and Saint Isidore who was a Spanish farm worker in the 12th century, known for his care of the poor.

For much of my life I have had a fascination with the lives of both Ignatius and Xavier. When I was a student here in the 1980sI was a member of Xavier House and I spent my first 6½ years of priestly ministry at Xavier College in Melbourne. Over the last 40 years I have been inspired by the example of both their lives.

Ignatius was 15 years older than Francis Xavier. When they met as fellow students and roommates at the University of Paris in the 1530s, Francis did not immediately warm to Ignatius. Although both came from northern Spain, at various points their families had been on opposing sides in various battles. As we know, Ignatius experienced a profound conversion following his wounding by the cannonball in the Battle of Pamplona in 1521.

Over the next decade, he re-oriented his whole being towards God, and especially Jesus Christ. He had a number of mystical experiences by the Cardoner River in Manresa and he journeyed to Jerusalem so as to walk in the footsteps of Christ. Ignatius’ experience of God was so profound that he wanted to share it with others and help them come to a deeper appreciation of the love of God within their own lives. For Ignatius, a significant part of this experience was a deeper and more authentic following of Jesus. This led him to free himself from all worldly attachments and ambitions, so that he could focus solely on various ways in which he could give glory to God.

In contrast, Francis Xavier had been sent to the University of Paris as a way of trying to restore his family’s name and standing. He was a gifted athlete and a popular student. He had a desire to become a diplomat. He wanted to be a person of influence in the various courts of power in Renaissance-era Europe. However, God intervened when Ignatius arrived in Paris, becoming a roommate of Francis Xavier and Peter Faber in 1529.

Ignatius could see the gifts that Francis had and the extraordinary potential for good within him. Initially, Xavier was resistant to Ignatius’ attempts to share his experiences and insights with him. Yet, over time, Ignatius continued to offer him the gift of friendship and Xavier also had a conversion experience.

Ignatius and Xavier were very different people and over the next 20 years their lives and how they were called to minister to others was very different. It was their friendship with each other, grounded in their experience of God’s transforming love, that continued to be a source of nourishment and consolation for them. Along with Peter Faber and four other friends, they discerned that God was calling them to live a new way of religious life.

Following their ordination as priests, they made themselves available to the Pope for the service of the Church. As he started to mission them to various places, they did not want to lose the gift of their friendship, sometimes described as a union of minds and hearts, and this led to the formation of the Society of Jesus in 1540.

Very soon after this, Ignatius missioned Francis Xavier to go to India. Xavier was working closely with Ignatius. Another Jesuit, Fr Nicholas Bobadilla, had originally been missioned to go but he fell seriously ill. Ignatius did not wish to disappoint King John of Portugal as he knew he needed his support and patronage, so he asked Xavier to go instead. Over the next decade Xavier worked tirelessly in India, Malacca and Japan. He had a desire to enter China but died, at the age of 46, at Sancian Island just off the coast of China. As a younger man, Francis had desired worldly honours, yet he died in obscurity on the other side of the world. He had sent many letters back to Europe about his experiences, inspiring others to follow in his footsteps. He would probably never have imagined that, in the years following his death, he would come to be considered one of the greatest missionaries in the history of the Church.

In contrast to Xavier, Ignatius was called to lead the nascent Society of Jesus. He spent much of the last 16 years of his life in Rome as an administrator. The Society of Jesus grew rapidly in the lifetime of Ignatius. Through writing the Constitutions, establishing new houses and responding to many letters, Ignatius put into place structures that enabled the charism of the Society to be more deeply embedded.

In the years that followed both of their deaths, their two lives became foundational in crafting the story of the Society of Jesus. Francis Xavier was the daring and courageous missionary who was willing to be sent to any place in the world for the greater glory of God. Ignatius has often been portrayed as the soldier, who, following his conversion, used these skills to establish the new religious order. This depiction of Ignatius does him a disservice because it was Ignatius’ gift for friendship, prayer and spiritual conversation that enabled him to lead others more closely to God and gather a group of companions around him who were committed to serving the Church and God.

Through his spiritual experiences and growth over a number of decades, Ignatius became a master of discernment and sought to share this gift most generously with his companions so that they too could grow in freedom.

In a recent general audience, Pope Francis explored the topic of virtuous action. With respect to the saints, he said the following: “We would be off-course if we thought that the saints were the exceptions of humanity: a sort of restricted circle of champions who live beyond the limits of our species. The saints, from this perspective we have just introduced regarding the virtues, are instead those who become themselves fully, who fulfil the vocation proper to every man or woman. What a happy world it would be if justice, respect, mutual benevolence, broadmindedness, and hope were the shared normality, and not instead a rare anomaly!”

As we move on from Easter, may we draw inspiration from the examples of Ignatius and Francis Xavier, so that in choosing to become more fully ourselves, we can be more ready to fully celebrate the blessings we have been given.

This article was originally published in a recent edition of the ‘Viewpoint’ newsletter for Saint Ignatius’ College Riverview.

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This triptych of stained-glass windows featuring Saint Ignatius and Saint Francis Xavier (including the banner image that appears at the top of this story) was an AI experiment using Canva’s Magic Media programme.