Tag Archives: St. Francis Xavier

Different types of missionaries

Today is the feast of St. Francis Xavier, the sixteenth century Jesuit priest who is one of the patrons of missionaries, who died on December 2, 1552 on a deserted island off the coast of China.

But these first three days of December offer us visions of three different types of missionaries.

On December 1, 1916, Blessed Brother Charles de Foucauld was killed by rebels in Tamanrasset which is in what is now southern Algeria. He had sought to live among the poor as Jesus in Nazareth, hidden and poor – and so found himself living among Muslims in Africa.

For him to be a missionary was to be a witness by being present.

“The whole of our existence, the whole of our lives should cry the Gospel from the rooftops  .  .  . not by our words but by our lives.”

Blessed Charles teaches us the importance of being present with our poor sisters and brothers:

We must infinitely respect the least of our brothers … let us mingle with them. Let us be one of them to the extent that God wishes… and treat them fraternally in order to have the honor and joy of being accepted as one of them.

On December 2, 1980, four US women missionaries were killed in El Salvador. Maryknoll Sisters Maura Clark and Ita Ford, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, and lay missionary Jean Donovan offer us the vision of missionaries who accompany the poor in situations of violence and oppression.

Not only were they present, living among the poor, they were also responding to their needs, accompanying those who were being displaced inside the country, largely because of the repression by government and death squad forces.

They also noted that the poor can evangelize us. As Sister Ita Ford wrote:

“Am I willing to suffer with the people here, the suffering of the powerless, the feeling impotent. Can I say to my neighbors — I have no solutions to the situation, I don’t know the answers, but I will walk with you, be with you. Can I let myself be evangelized by this opportunity? Can I look at and accept my own poorness and learn from other poor ones?”

They accompanied the poor in their powerlessness and shared the fate of so many poor in El Salvador, a violent death at the hands of government forces.

St. Francis Xavier offers another vision of mission.

In some ways he appears to be the traditional missionary, in his ten years in India and the Far East.

He baptized thousands in India – and complained that students in the universities in Europe were thinking more of themselves than of the thousands who needed to hear the Gospel message and to be baptized.

But there is more to Francis Xavier than this.

In India he served the poor, visiting prisoners, slaves, lepers and people at the margins. He lived as a poor man.

But he was aware of the exploitation and violence wrought by Portuguese colonial rule in India and wrote back to the King of Portugal calling on him to correct the rampant injustices. He was a missionary who was not afraid to advocate for the poor.

But, though he identified with the poor and spent most of his time in India with the poor, he realized that, like St. Paul, he needed to be “all things to all people” (1 Corinthians 9: 22). So, when he went to Japan and saw that the rulers looked down on him with his poor clothing, he put on fancier clothes and brought gifts – opening up Japan to the message of the Gospel. He was a pioneer in inculturation.

And so, Charles de Foucauld teaches the missionary the importance of being really present among the poor. The US women religious martyrs teach the call to accompany people in the midst of poverty and violence and to be open to learn from the poor. St. Francis Xavier teaches the importance of being an advocate of the poor in the face of injustice and of being willing to make changes in the face of different cultures.

These missionary witnesses can help us who are missionaries in a foreign land to examine our ministry. (They also can help all Christians who seek to be missionaries, witnesses of the Gospel, wherever they may be.)

Yesterday, December 2, 2015, Pope Francis took up the call to mission and also provided food for thought.

He first challenged young people to think of becoming missionaries and recalled an 81 year old Italian woman religious he met in Bangui in the Central American Republic. She had left Italy when she was in her early twenties and had devoted all her life to Africa.

Pope Francis’ message reflects the challenge of mission in the twenty-first century, echoing the witness of Charles de Foucauld, Francis Xavier, Maura Clark, Ira Ford, Jean Donovan, and Dorothy Kazel.

But I address young people: think what you are doing with your life. Think of this sister and so many like her, who have given their life, and so many have died there. Missionary work is not to engage in proselytism: this sister said to me that Muslim women go to them because they know that the sisters are good nurses and that they look after one well, and they do not engage in catechesis to convert them! They give witness then, they catechize anyone who so wishes. But witness: this is the great heroic missionary work of the Church. To proclaim Jesus Christ with one’s life!  I turn to young people: think of what you want to do with your life. It is the moment to think and to ask the Lord to make you hear His will. However, please don’t exclude this possibility of becoming a missionary, to bring love, humanity and faith to other countries. Do not engage in proselytism: no. Those who seek something else do so. The faith is preached first with witness and then with the word, slowly.


For more on the missionaries mentioned here, you can find short biographies in Robert Ellsberg’s All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time.

Tears of joy

“The dangers to which I am exposed and the tasks I undertake for God are springs of spiritual joy, so much so that these islands are the places in all the world for a man to lose his sight by excess of weeping; that they are tears of joy.”
St. Francis Xavier

 Today is the feast of St. Francis Xavier (Francisco Javier), one of the first Jesuits and a missionary to the Indies and the Far East. He died on this day in 1552, almost alone, on an island off the coast of China.

The right arm of St. Francis Xavier, the Gesù, Rome

The right arm of St. Francis Xavier, the Gesù, Rome

He was an indefatigable missionary, baptizing tens or hundreds of thousands, so many that he once wrote a letter complaining about the failure of the European universities to send missionaries:

In these lands so many people come to faith in Jesus Christ that many times my arms fail me because of the painful work of baptizing them.

The arm that he used for baptisms is preserved in the Church of the Gesú in Rome.

For his years spent in mission, he is the patron of foreign missionaries.

But what struck me about San Francisco Javier this morning was the quote that heads the entry for his feast in Robert Ellsberg’s All Saints, which I quoted above.

There is a joy for me in mission, here in Honduras. Yes, there are days of loneliness, days when I’m frustrated by the lack of response by some people, days when I’m cursing out the drivers who nearly hit me on a mountain road, days when my stomach is “upset,” days when I worry about my car which is again being repaired because of the terrible roads.

There are days of sadness when I hear of deaths and killings in the parish, when I hear that a promising young man left, trying to reach the US, when I hear of the mental crisis a young leader recently experienced, when I see the poverty, especially the houses of tin or mud as I drive through the parish.

But despite – or maybe even because of – these experiences, I have found a deep peace and joy here.

It’s a joy that is a gift.

I find joy when I see 101 young people seeking to be baptized, as I saw last Sunday at the entry into the catechumenate in the Dulce Nombre parish. I was especially moved when the sponsors knelt before their godchildren to sign their feet with the cross.


I find joy when I listen to a young widow speak of how she would like to help the unmarried couples in her village.

I find joy when I witnessed more than 500 confirmations in the parish earlier this year.

I find joy when I can joke with people and provoke a smile – as I did yesterday in a bakery and as I often do with the workers in the house under construction.

I find joy when I see that the workers on the house, without my instructions, put my name in broken ceramic in the floor of the utility room.


I find joy when I work with the catechists who devote hours each week to share the faith with the young people of the parish.

I find joy when I can give someone a ride in the countryside. I find joy when they smile at my response to their question, “How much do I owe you?” I used to say “Nothing,” but now I say “Pray an Our Father for me!”

I find joy when I see the young man who had a mental breakdown at Mass as a sponsor for a catechumen and when I see in church the young man who tried to go to the US.

I find joy when a young catechumen asks me if I was in the Viet Nam War, surprised at his interest in history. I find even more joy when I can tell him that I was among those who protested that war.

I find joy when I can be present to the joys and sorrows of the people here.

I find joy here and at times I find myself close to tears – seeing the workings of God among the people.

For all this, I give thanks for the grace to have been called here, to Honduras, to the parish of Dulce Nombre de María.

Gracias a Dios.

Seeds of greatness

I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth,
for you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned,
and made them known to the little one.
Luke 10, 21

 On December 3, 1552, a Basque Jesuit priest, Francis Xavier, died on an island off the coast of China. Only 46 years old, he had spent eleven years in Asia, bringing the Gospel to many people in India, Indonesia, Japan, and other lands.

He had baptized tens of thousands. In a letter complaining about the failure of the European universities to respond to the need for missionaries, he had written:

In these lands so many people come to faith in Jesus Christ that many times my arms fail me because of the painful work of baptizing them.

Though his body is venerated in Goa, India, the arm he used to baptize is preserved above an altar in the church of the Gesù in Rome.

The right arm of St. Francis Xavier, the Gesù, Rome

The right arm of St. Francis Xavier, the Gesù, Rome

In India he often worked with the poorest and most abandoned who were victims of the avarice and injustice of the Portuguese colonists. But for him it was a joy.

He once wrote to his friend and superior, St. Ignatius Loyola,

We came next to the villages of the new Christians who had been converted a few years back….The native Christians are very poor; they are without priests and know only that they are Christians: there is no one to preach to them, no one to teach them the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer an the Hail Mary, or Gods commandments.

Ever since I came here I have constantly been visiting the villages and baptizing children in great numbers… during this time I have also begun to realize that the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these. I have found in these children the seeds of spiritual greatness and have no doubt that if there were teachers to train them in Christian ways, they would become excellent Christians.

Francis Xavier found in these poor people “the seeds of spiritual greatness.”

The bishops at Vatican II and the Latin American bishops at Puebla and Aparecida spoke of the “seeds of the Word” present in peoples before being evangelized.

It is important to recognize that God has worked and is working in peoples, especially in the little ones, before the missionaries come.

This reminds me of a quote of John Taylor that I have often used with people going on service or immersion trips:

Our first task in approaching
another people, another culture, another religion,
is to take off our shoes,
for the place we are approaching is holy.
Else we may find ourselves treading on another’s dream.
More seriously still,
we may forget
that God was there before our arrival.




The challenge and joys of mission and St. Francis Xavier

Today the Catholic Church celebrates Francis Xavier, the great missionary. One of the first Jesuits he was sent to south Asia at the age of thirty-five, where he labored, seemingly without rest, until he died at the age of forty-six, on an island off China.

The patron of missions, he offers us some lessons for our daily lives of spreading the Good News of Jesus.

In India he was known for his love and care for the poor, even offering Mass each week for the lepers. After visiting hospitals and prisons in the morning, he would go around town with a bell, gathering children for catechism classes.

His zeal was almost without bounds, but he had a deep love and respect for the people he met. As he wrote in one letter to St. Ignatius of the children he baptized, “the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these. I have found in these children the seeds of spiritual greatness…”

But it was not enough to care personally for the poor. He sought justice for them, even writing the King of Portugal, denouncing the injustices he saw:

There is danger that when our Lord God calls Your Highness to his judgment Your Highness may hear angry words from Him: “Why did you not punish those who were your subjects and who were enemies of Me in India?”

But when he went to Japan, recognizing the high culture and education he found there, he adopted a different approach and approached the rulers well dressed and as a representative of the Portuguese king.

Though I appreciate more his approach to the poor, I can understand why he thought he should approach Japan in a different way, becoming as St. Paul said, “all things to all people.”

But all through this exhausting mission work he seems to have maintained a deep spiritual joy. As he wrote:

The dangers to which I am exposed and the tasks that I undertake for God are springs of spiritual joy, so much so that these islands are the places in all the world for a man to lose his sight by excess of weeping; but they are tears of joy.

May he inspire us with his zeal, challenge us with his love of the poor and his cries for justice, and help us be signs of the Kingdom of God wherever we may be.

For all of us are called to be missionaries – some of us in places like India and Honduras, others in the recesses of our homes and towns.