Francis Xavier: accidental missionary, ‘paradoxical’ saint

The writings of Xavier display the 16th century view of evangelisation as a zero-sum game. Like Xavier, I find that I have a voracious capacity for work and a demand to be up and doing — which can obscure the long-term purpose of the work and jeopardise its foundations.

The Basque noble, Frantzisko Xabierkoa, known to history as the Jesuit saint and missionary extraordinaire, Francis Xavier, is one of those paradoxical saints whom I find at once both alienating and inspiring.

Born in 1506 and dying in 1552, his life was as packed as it was contradictory. A noble born in a time of war, the young wastrel became a student at Paris and was famously turned by his comparatively elderly roommate into a model of Christian living.

The young man went from partying to on-site retreats and the elderly roommate, fellow Basque Ignatius of Loyola, found in this young man one of his closest companions and later, envoy to great swathes of South East Asia: India, Indonesia and Japan.

Finally, the former party lover died on Shangchuan Island as he sought to storm the borders of China in the name of the God of love.

Why the alienation? I suppose it is because the writings of Xavier display the 16th century view of evangelisation as a zero-sum game. Once you had baptised your newfound flock, you had claimed their souls and there was not much more that needed to be done. You had claimed them from the evil of paganism and saved them from the Devil.

The result was a mad dash around much of South East Asia, furiously baptising up to 30,000 people with very little attention paid to how God might already have been moving among them and relatively little foundation laid for subsequent generations.

Like many of his age, too, he had a relatively limited ability to distinguish the Christian faith from western culture, forcing converts to take Iberian names and laying the groundwork for the less than tender mercies of the Goan inquisitors.

Then again, perhaps it is dangerous to impose a 21st century view of the world on 16th century thought.

While I would never like to admit it, of course, I see sneaking streaks of this less attractive Xavier in myself. Like Xavier, I find that I have a voracious capacity for work and a demand to be up and doing — which can obscure the long-term purpose of the work and jeopardise its foundations.

Like him, also, perhaps I don’t always have sufficient tolerance for others’ beliefs or ideas or think through the longer-term consequences of what looks like a good decision at the time.

There are, however, features of Xavier’s ministry that attract admiration in anyone’s language. He had a genuine love for those among whom he moved, seeing Christ as truly present in them in a time in which racism and disdain were commonplace and oftentimes formed the basis for genocide. He insisted on missionaries learning the languages, mores and cultures of the people among whom they lived.

While we live in a different age, these are valuable lessons for today’s Australia, where mutual suspicion and hostility increasingly feed (and cloud) the exchange of ideas, ideas circulate in social media bubbles and not beyond them, and racism is scarcely unknown.

Although Xavier did comparatively little to build sustainable roots for his churches, his missionary style was much better than many of his day. Unlike many contemporaries, he saw the need for an educated local clergy and for a church embedded in the countries he wished to claim for Christ, all of which were genuine novelties in a time in which missionary work was all too often simply a cover for conquest and subjugation.

Again, the idea that the Church should put its money where its mouth is and consider whether its ministers are properly formed and the question of whether it truly loves the people whom it wishes to serve and acts accordingly are not without relevance today.

It is also worth remembering that, whatever else one might say about Xavier, he was a man of unparalleled devotion, embedded in the evangelical poverty of the Spiritual Exercises and prepared to endure incredible hardship for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

He set off on a voyage which was known for its dangers (ranging from piracy to shipwreck due to storms or primitive navigation techniques), lived in conditions from Spartan to palatial, operated among many different cultures — none of whose languages he spoke — and spent years away from friends or companions, dying alone on a strange shore.

And all of this almost by accident: Ignatius had planned to send the fiery Spaniard Nicolas Bobadilla on the mission to India but he fell ill at the last minute. Xavier, without warning or preparation, offered his own service to ensure the mission’s success.

In short, this accidental missionary is someone any modern might find strange but very attractive and even vitally relevant.

Fr Justin Glyn SJ

Share This