Today is the feast day of St. Francis Xavier, SJ, a Jesuit priest often identified by the Catholic Church as one of the greatest missionaries since the Apostle Paul. Xavier, born into a well-to-do family in Navarre in 1506, left to study at the University of Paris in 1525. Xavier would remain at the University as a student and then as a teacher for the next decade. However, it wasn’t just Xavier’s education that was transformative but his relationship with two fellow students – Peter Faber and Ignatius Loyola – that would lead to Xavier’s missionary work around the globe. The three men lived together for a number of years, and Ignatius, who had come to the University at the relatively late age of thirty-eight to undertake theological studies, used his time at the University to bring together a group of men to focus on prayer and faith formation. These “Friends of the Lord,” as they called themselves, met regularly to pray and discuss matters of faith. In 1534 Xavier, Fabre, Loyola, and four of their companions secretly met in Montmarte, outside of Paris. The men made private vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to the Pope. In 1540 Ignatius and his companions appealed to Pope Paul III for approval to form a new monastic order. Paul gave his approval, and the Society of Jesus was born.
In 1540 John III, King of Portugal, recruited the newly formed Jesuit order to do missionary work in India and the Far East. When one of the two Jesuits Ignatius picked to lead the missionary endeavor became ill, Francis Xavier was asked to go in his place. Though Xavier became a missionary somewhat by chance, his work over the next twelve years until his death was momentous in regard to the spread of Christianity into the East. For twelve years Xavier traveled from Lisbon to Portuguese settlements in India and then on to Japan and China. Though Xavier had success in bringing Christianity into these countries, his task was not always easy as he faced push back from local religious and imperial rulers, cultural misunderstandings, and sometimes the threat of persecution or even death.
To our twenty-first century ears, uniquely attuned to globalization, religious freedom, interreligious dialogue, and religious pluralism, efforts to bring the Christian message into new cultures for the purpose of conversion may make us uncomfortable. Nonetheless, Xavier’s zeal for spreading the Good News of the Gospel, as well as his efforts to learn and understand the cultures and languages of the people with whom he interacted has a lot to offer to those of us in the twenty-first century who are also seeking to live out Gospel ideals.
Xavier had a great knack for “meeting people where they’re at.” In other words, Xavier was very much attuned to the cultures in which he was living and working, and he sought to embrace these cultures in order to help further his message. He would learn native languages and, sometimes, dress in native clothing. On the one hand, his efforts may speak to the universality of Christianity, but they also speak to the respect he had for the people and his recognition that the best way of teaching people is accepting them as they are. Finally, if the last few months have taught us anything, it’s that the Good News of the Gospel – Christ’s love, forgiveness, and liberation – is needed now more than ever. Even if we don’t dedicate our lives to missionary work in the same way that Xavier did, this does not take away our obligation to live a Christ-like life. In our daily lives – work, school, relationships – how might we best reflect Christ’s good news to the world around us?