For two wonderful years, I was a faculty member at Xavier High School in New York City. Although no stranger to Jesuits and Jesuit education, I admit I knew little of the man whose name was emblazoned on signs, stationery, and sweatshirts around the school. You (like I did!) can read about his life here, but I’ll admit that much of what I now appreciate about the patron saint of missionaries came from an encounter with his spirit and legacy in the school’s Companions of St. Francis Xavier (CFX) service program as a faculty chaperone.
Accompanying students to Robbins, Tennessee and Tijuana, Mexico for several weeks each summer, I learned of what it means to rejoice in the Good News of Jesus Christ. Members of the sophomore and junior classes, many strangers to each other or mere acquaintances, fundraised to spend a week of their summer living in community together and extending that fellowship with those whom they met and with whom they worked in the course of construction projects coordinated by Habitat for Humanity Appalachia and Esperanza International. The initial naïve enthusiasm or guarded reticence that each of us possessed was challenged through an encounter with the “other.” Presuppositions about “the poor” and “the less fortunate” were transformed into relationships of solidarity, friendship, and collaboration as both students and faculty experienced the vulnerability of being themselves sojourners in strange lands and experiencing the hospitality of those communities and their rich cultural traditions. Rather than saving the people whom we sought to serve, I and my student and faculty companions experienced with our new companions in Tennessee and Tijuana the salvation of Jesus’ great love for all persons regardless of religious creed, gender, or ethnicity. The Good News of our reconciliation with one another and with God was lived in every nail hammered, cement block laid, and meal shared in the hot sun of the southern summers. We sang of God’s goodness through our sweat.
We know from his correspondence St. Francis Xavier approached his own missionary work through the medium of the word. In the context of the 16th century, this is not surprising. In the coming centuries the imagination of the Church’s own missionary pursuits to complement evangelization by word with evangelization by deeds would manifest itself in saints like St. Frances Xavier Cabrini. Yet, St. Francis Xavier, in his own day and age, was a pioneer in earnest engagement and appreciation of cultures not his own. He sought to translate the Gospel to foreign tongues, dialogue with the educated and uneducated on their terms, and live at peace among those to whom he was a pilgrim traveler. The readings the Catholic liturgy recalls to celebrate his feast echo St. Paul’s experience as a missionary:
For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my preaching I may make the gospel free of charge, not making full use of my right in the gospel. For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. (1 Cor 9:16-19, 22-23)
St. Francis Xavier’s witness carries the experience of St. Paul and the early missionaries for Christ to his own time and stands as a sign of hope for us today, missioning in word and deed, that Christ speak to all by all means to save all.
Today another Francis, our present pope, shares in the same missionary vision and synthesizes the old and the new in his recent apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. He writes:
I dream of a “missionary option”, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself. As John Paul II once said to the Bishops of Oceania: “All renewal in the Church must have mission as its goal if it is not to fall prey to a kind of ecclesial introversion.” (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, n. 27)
The challenge to conversion that places oneself at the service of the Gospel in word and deed rather than self-preservation is already lived and bearing firstfruits in many associations and ecclesial initiatives beyond that of CFX and other service-immersion programs at Jesuit high schools like Xavier. Like their counterparts in high schools across the country, Jesuit Volunteer Corps has been inviting its missionaries for over 50 years to forsake complacency and self-preservation and “be ruined for life” through loving solidarity with those on the margins of our society. Catholic Relief Services extends the humanitarian concern of the American Catholic churches throughout the world in going where the need is greatest to serve with faith, hope, and charity. Across the world and in our own local communities we are called share the joyful experience of Christ’s friendship with one another, making friends with others by way of inclusive, non-sectarian agendas.
We, like St. Francis Xavier, have received a missionary option and call to share the joy of the Gospel in word and deed. Will you be sent? Will you break the Body of Christ, which you yourself receive and become in communion, with and for others?