Xavier, Francis

views updated May 09 2018


XAVIER, FRANCIS (15061552), cofounder of the Roman Catholic Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), missionary, and saint. Francisco de Jassu y Xavier was born in the family castle in the kingdom of Navarre (now northern Spain), the fifth and youngest child of noble, wealthy, and pious Catholic parents. His early education took place at home and under the tutelage of local priests. In 1525 the keen, ambitious student left home permanently, bound for Paris. A handsome, slender, athletic youth, about five feet four inches tall, he was noted then, as throughout his life, for his cheerful and vivacious personality. At the University of Paris, Xavier gained a master of arts degree in philosophy in 1530, taught this subject for several years (15301534), and then studied theology until 1536.

During his years at the university, Ignatius Loyola, a fellow student since 1528, became an increasingly important influence on Xavier, and by 1533 Xavier had become one of his disciples. In 1534 Xavier made the Spiritual Exercises under the direction of Ignatius and on August 15 he joined Ignatius and five other students in a chapel in Montmartre, a district of Paris, where all of them vowed to lead lives of apostolic poverty, to labor for the salvation of their neighbors, to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and to place their services at the disposition of the pope. Together with three other students who joined the group when it renewed its vows a year later, these men were the ten founders of the Society of Jesus.

Beginning the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Xavier left Paris in November 1536 with eight of his companions and, traveling by foot, reached Venice nearly two months later. Ignatius met them there. In Venice, Xavier, along with Ignatius and four other companions, was ordained a priest in June 1537. War with the Turks ruled out a voyage across the Mediterranean to Palestine, so in 1538 Xavier went to Rome and there shared in the discussions that led to the founding of the Society of Jesus. Until his departure from Rome in 1540, he served as secretary of the new religious order.

When the pious King John III of Portugal put out a call for missionaries, especially for the care of recently converted Paravas (Bhavatas) in southern India, Xavier left Rome for Portugal, traveling overland to Lisbon in the entourage of the Portuguese ambassador. While awaiting the annual departure of the India fleet, Xavier performed various priestly tasks in the city and at the royal court. His ship set sail in April 1541, rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and wintered in Mozambique, where Xavier's two Jesuit colleagues remained. After further stops at Melinde (Malindi, in modern-day Kenya) and the island of Socotra (off the coast of modern-day Somalia, where Xavier had to be dissuaded from remaining), the voyage ended in May 1542 in Goa, a district on the west coast of India and the main Portuguese center in that country.

Until the end of the rainy season in September, Xavier ministered to the Portuguese and native Christians in Goa. Accompanied by three native helpers, he then sailed to the southern tip of the continent. For the next three years his apostolate was centered in Malabar and Travancore, the coastal regions northwest of Cape Comorin; in the regions northeast of the cape as far as São Thomé (modern-day Madras); and on the neighboring island of Ceylon. Much of his ministry consisted of instructing the thousands of Parava pearl divers and fishermen who had been converted to Roman Catholicism around 1535 but whose religious knowledge remained minimal. Spectacular numbers of conversions were made: Xavier reported baptizing over ten thousand villagers in Travancore in one month.

In September 1545 Xavier sailed from São Thomé to Malacca, a Portuguese settlement on the Malay Peninsula; then to the Moluccas, or Spice Islands, in the East Indies, where his main concern was the native Christians, left without clergy in the Portuguese centers of Amboina and Ternate; and then as far north as the Moro Islands. He returned to Malacca in June 1547 and to Goa in March 1548. After further work along the Fishery Coast he returned to Goa once again. In April 1549 he set sail with three Japanese converts and two fellow Jesuits to inaugurate the Christian mission in Japan. When he departed from Japan for Goa twenty-seven months later, he left behind some two thousand converts. Hoping to initiate a Christian mission to China, he took ship from Goa in April 1552, but he was not allowed to disembark on the Chinese mainland. After three months of fruitless waiting on the desolate island of Sancian (near Canton), he died on December 3 following a brief illness. His incorrupt body was taken in 1554 to Goa, where it is still enshrined and greatly venerated.

Xavier is ranked among the greatest missionaries in Christian history. His numerous far-ranging journeys were not those of a spiritual adventurer, restlessly seeking new fields to conquer. He served not only as missionary but also as apostolic nuncio and Jesuit superior, with the duty of investigating mission possibilities in areas then little known to Europeans. He was both a pioneer and organizer of the Jesuit missions in the Far East, intent on obtaining suitably trained European co-workers. He was eager to supply mission stations with churches, schools, and personnel and to be kept informed about them. Both his actions and his writings show practicality, prudence, and sound spirituality. His success was promoted also by his exemplary apostolic zeal, his personal holiness, and his ability to mix easily with persons of all classes, races, and beliefs. In addition, he was a man much devoted to prayer, a mystic. Unlimited confidence in God, his most basic spiritual trait, freed him from discouragement in the face of obstacles and reverses. These characteristics, together with his reputation as a wonder-worker, led Christians, Muslims, and pagans alike to refer to him as "the holy father," and "the great father." Since his death, he has been venerated as the ideal missionary and, as such, has inspired thousands to devote their lives to spreading the gospel far afield. In 1622 he was canonized, and in 1927 he was designated by Pius XI as patron of all missions. His annual liturgical feast is celebrated on December 3.

See Also



The critical edition of the letters and other writings of Xavier that supplants earlier, defective editions is Epistolae S. Francisci Xaverii aliaque eius scripta, 2 vols., edited by Georg Schurhammer and Joseph Wicki (Rome, 19441945), published as volumes 67 and 68 of Monumenta historica Societatis Iesu. Applicable bibliographies include Archivum historicum Societatis Iesu (Rome, 1932) and Bibliographie sur l'histoire de la Compagnie de Jésus, 19011980, 7 vols., by László Polgár (Rome, 1982). A readable, brilliantly written biography, the one most widely read in English, which has also been translated into several languages, is James Brodrick's Saint Francis Xavier, 15061552 (New York, 1952); it should be studied with some caution, however, because of questionable accuracy in its characterizations of Xavier. The Life and Letters of Saint Francis Xavier, 2d ed., 2 vols. (1881; reprint, London, 1927), by Henry J. Coleridge is useful still because of its translation into English of all the letters of Xavier, although the collections of letters used by Coleridge have now been superseded by that edited by Schurhammer and Wicki. Francis Xavier: His Life, His Times, 4 vols., by Georg Schurhammer (Rome, 19731982) is the definitive biography by the leading authority on Xavier, the result of decades of study. Schurhammer's Saint Francis Xavier: The Apostle of India and Japan (Saint Louis, Mo., 1928) and Margaret Yeo's Saint Francis Xavier: Apostle of the East (New York, 1932) are both good, popular biographies.

John F. Broderick (1987)

Xavier, Francis

views updated May 23 2018

Xavier, Francis

Francis Xavier, the first great missionary of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), was born in Navarre, Spain, on April 7, 1506, and died on the island of Sancian, off the Chinese mainland, on December 3, 1552.

Xavier left his native Spain in 1525 to take up studies at the University of Paris. It was here that he met Ignatius Loyola (1491–1556) and other founding members of the future Society of Jesus. Xavier was at first resistant to Loyola's attempts to bring about a spiritual conversion in his life. By 1533, however, the two men had developed a close friendship and they were among the group of seven students who, on August 15, 1534, assembled at a chapel in Montmartre and took private vows of poverty and chastity.

After finishing their studies in Paris, the friends aimed to travel to Jerusalem to help in the work of converting the infidels. If this proved impossible (as it did), they pledged to visit Rome and allow the pope to use them in whatever way he thought "most useful to the glory of God and the good of souls." Official papal recognition of the new Society of Jesus arrived in September 1540 with the bull Regimini militantis ecclesiae.

At this stage, there was little, if any, talk of some of the activities (combating the burgeoning Protestant Reformation; setting up educational establishments) that would come to characterize the Society's history. However, it was not long before another familiar sphere of Jesuit endeavor began to open up. Over the next four centuries, Jesuit missionaries would travel extensively across Asia, Africa, and the Americas: in the vanguard of such efforts was Francis Xavier, who, in response to a request from the Portuguese king, departed for India on April 7, 1541.

Xavier would spend the next decade evangelizing across southern and eastern Asia. He spent several months in Goa, on the western coast of India, ministering to the sick in the city's hospitals and striving to win converts among the city's children. In October 1542 he traveled south to Cape Comorin, where, armed with prayers translated into Tamil, he worked among the local pearl-fishing community. A trip to Malacca (1545) and the Spice Islands (1546–1547) followed, after which Xavier turned his attentions to the two greatest evangelical prizes Asia had too offer: Japan and China.

Xavier arrived at Kagoshima, Japan, on August 15, 1549. He was immediately impressed by what he perceived as the enormous Japanese potential to understand and embrace the Christian gospel. "We shall never find among heathens another race equal to the Japanese," he wrote, "they are people of excellent minds—good in general and not malicious." Drawing broad, usually reductive, conclusions about the relative worth of various Asian populations would be a hallmark of Christian evangelism throughout the early modern era. Although Xavier met with some resistance from local Buddhist leaders, his two and a half years in cities such as Hirado, Kyoto, and Yamaguchi proved worthwhile. By the time of his departure in 1551 he had won over several thousand converts.

Xavier was back in Goa by January 1552. He set sail for China in May but was destined never to enter the empire's territories. He was taken ill on Sancian Island in late November and died on the morning of December 3, within sight of the Chinese mainland.

Throughout Xavier's Asian career the links between evangelism and the colonial enterprise were plain to see. Xavier was a papal legate, but he was also under commission from the Portuguese king, arriving in Goa on board the Santiago in the company of Governor Martim Afonso de Sousa (ca. 1500–1564). There were clear advantages to be wrung from the association with empire. The awe and fear that the European colonists inspired could always be exploited, and satisfaction could be derived from the compulsive European habit of destroying the idols and temples of indigenous faiths. Perhaps most significantly, it could be made abundantly clear to local leaders that allowing missionaries to work in their territories (perhaps even converting to Christianity themselves) might bring military, political, and economic advantages.

That said, Xavier was more than capable of criticizing what he perceived as the lax morality of European settlers. Also, while he shared the prejudices and assumptions of his contemporaries, he did make efforts to genuinely understand the cultures in which he found himself. This, along with a willingness to adapt evangelical strategies according to local circumstances, would emerge as a defining characteristic of Jesuit missionary activity across the globe. Such an ethos certainly carried serious risks.

The accommodationist approach of Jesuit missionaries such as Xavier, Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) in China, and Roberto de Nobili (1577–1656) in India drew enormous criticism from commentators who feared that too much adaptation of the gospel message would result in syncretic, impure versions of the Christian faith. Nor was the work of reacting to local circumstances ever straightforward. In Japan, Xavier had turned to words in the local vernacular to translate concepts such as god, soul, and sacrament. It turned out that he had been badly advised, and the meanings carried by the chosen Japanese words were very different from what Xavier had intended. He was forced to employ Japanese "versions" of Latin words—Deusu, anima, eucaristia—which, to a Japanese audience, were essentially devoid of any inherent meaning.

Perhaps Xavier's greatest significance lay in his role as an icon and model of all subsequent Jesuit missionary activity. Canonized in 1622, his memory would inspire priests from Ethiopia to New France to Arizona. Relics of the saint would be a much sought-after spiritual commodity during the seventeenth century. The lower part of his right arm would be shipped off to Rome, the remainder would be divided in three and shared between the Jesuit communities in Macao, Cochin, and Malacca. By the eighteenth century, "Xavier-Water," in which medals or relics of the saint had been immersed, had become a popular central-European cure for fevers and bad eyesight. Even today, his body, housed in the Church of the Bom Jesus in Goa, remains a cherished sight of pilgrimage and adoration.

see also China to the First Opium War; Mission, Civilizing; Missions, China; Religion, Western Presence in East Asia.


Alden, Dauril. The Making of an Enterprise: The Society of Jesus in Portugal, its Empire, and Beyond, 1540–1750. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996.

Brodrick, James. Saint Francis Xavier, 1506–1552. New York: Wicklow, 1952.

Coleridge, Henry, ed. The Life and Letters of St. Francis Xavier, 4th ed., 2 vols. London: Burns and Oates, 1912.

Elison, George. Deus Destroyed: The Image of Christianity in Early Modern Japan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973.

Neill, Stephen. A History of Christianity in India: The Beginnings to AD 1707. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Ross, Andrew. A Vision Betrayed: The Jesuits in Japan and China, 1542–1742. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1994.

Schurhammer, Georg. Francis Xavier: His Life, His Times, 4 vols. Translated by M. Joseph Costelloe. Rome: Jesuit Historical Institute, 1973–1982.

Xavier, Francis (1506–1552)

views updated May 18 2018

Xavier, Francis (15061552)

Missionary who converted thousands to Christianity in India, the East Indies, and the Far East. Born Francisco de Jasso y Azpilcueta to a noble family of Navarre, he was the son of a counselor to the king of Navarre. He studied at the University of Paris, where in 1534 became one of the seven founding members of the Jesuit Order founded by Ignatius of Loyola. Xavier traveled to Venice in 1536 and was ordained a priest in 1537. He worked for several years to establish Jesuit institutions in Rome and in 1540 was recruited into a Portuguese mission to Goa, India. The Christianizing mission of the Jesuits was well suited to accompany the voyages to the Indies by Portuguese explorers, who saw as their duty not only the establishment of trading posts and colonies but the harvest of souls for the greater glory of the Christian church. Appointed a papal nuncio, or representative, Xavier left for India and the East Indies in 1542. His persuasive speaking and preaching gained converts at Goa, and he successfully established Christian missions along the coasts of India and in the Malay Archipelago. In 1549 he arrived at Kagoshima, Japan, where he became the first to introduce Christianity. Xavier set up several missions in Japan before returning to India in 1551. He left with a Portuguese embassy for China and in 1552 died on the island of Changcheun while seeking entry to China, then ruled by a Ming dynasty emperor. Xavier's body was collected and laid to rest at a Christian church in Goa, which became a popular shrine and place of pilgrimage for Christians throughout Asia. He was canonized along with Ignatius Loyola in 1622; Xavier eventually became the patron saint of India, the Philippines, Japan, China, New Zealand, and of all Christian missionaries.

See Also: Loyola, Saint Ignatius

Xavier, Francis

views updated Jun 11 2018


XAVIER, FRANCIS (1506–1552), Jesuit missionary to India Francis Xavier was born in 1506 in the Pyrenees kingdom of Navarre. At eighteen he went to the University of Paris, where nine years later he joined the faculty and came under the influence of Ignatius Loyola, who was planning to start the Society of Jesus. Xavier was one of the first six to join Loyola.

Eventually Xavier was commissioned by King John III of Portugal to Christianize his eastern colonies. Xavier left for India on 7 April 1541. As papal nuncio, he was given supreme authority over all missions and churches already in existence. He landed in Goa on 6 May 1542.

Late in 1542, he went to Madras (Chennai), converting the Parava fisher people in great numbers. though their acquiescence was not necessarily spiritually motivated. Harassed by pirates at sea and powerful vested interests on the land, they readily agreed to become Christians in return for the protection of the king of Portugal. Xavier had no fluency in any of the local vernacular languages, so he memorized the Creed, the Lord's Prayer, the Ave Maria, and the Ten Commandments. His method was to gather the people of a village together on Sundays. "We begin," Xavier wrote, "with a profession of faith." He would then recite the Creed and the Commandments and the people would respond in a "mighty chorus . . . with their arms folded on their breasts in the form of a cross," affirming that they believed (Firth, p. 59). In such a fashion, in one month, he baptized as many as ten thousand. After a year, Xavier turned his attention to the west coast, journeying through Travencore to Cochin. Here he repeated his efforts. Everywhere he went he endeavored, but without much success, to train Indian workers, both ordained and lay, to provide for the spiritual nurture of the young Christian community. In addition, he instructed his fellow Jesuits to "build schools in every village, that the children may be taught daily." Remarkably, the Parava remain Christian to this day.

Subsequent to his work in India, Xavier attempted, but failed, to enter China, and he died of a fever on 2 December 1552 off the south coast of China. He was eventually buried in Goa and was canonized to sainthood in 1622.

Graham Houghton


Amaladoss, Anand. Jesuit Presence in Indian History. Anand, India: Gujurat Sahitya Prakash, 1988.

Firth, Cyril Bruce. An Introduction to Indian Church History. Chennai: Christian Literature Society, 1968.

Neill, Stephen. The Story of the Christian Church in India and Pakistan. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1970.

Ogilvie, J. N. The Apostles of India. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1915.

Xavier, Francis

views updated May 11 2018

Xavier, Francis (Jesuit priest and missionary): see FRANCIS XAVIER.

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