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Exchanging worldly for missionary ambition

Saint Francis XavierA bare-bone summary of the fascinating and eventful life of one of Christianity’s greatest saints, St Francis Xavier, a life with a profound message and a long legacy.


2006 is the five-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Saint Francis Xavier, generally regarded as the greatest Christian missionary since St Paul. He was born into a noble family in Javier, Northern Spain, on April 7th, 1506, the youngest of five children.

It was while he was a student in Paris that he was befriended by Ignatius of Loyola, who encouraged him to exchange his worldly ambitions for a life dedicated to God. The two of them, together with another student, Peter Faber, and four other men, took vows in the chapel in Montmartre in 1534. And so the first steps in the formation of the Society of Jesus was taken.

In 1537, Francis was ordained a priest. Soon afterwards, in response to the wishes of Pope Paul III and at the request of Ignatius, he set sail on his first missionary journey to India. In 1541 he eventually arrived in Goa, on the Indian coast, and he immediately commenced his missionary work. He spent his time nursing the sick, comforting the dying, hearing confessions, visiting prisoners, and teaching adults and children to pray. After celebrating Sunday Mass he would go to the Home for Lepers on the outskirts of the city and give the sacraments to the lepers there.

All this time, Francis was intent on developing his mission further east. As soon as he could he set out for Malacca (in present-day Malaysia). He used the same missionary methods there as he had developed in Goa. From Malacca he continued on to the islands of the Pacific Rim. Later he returned to Goa, where he trained priests at the College of the Holy Faith so that they could return to their homelands and continue the work of the Church.

In response to a Japanese convert whom he met in Malacca, Francis then decided to go to Japan. He arrived in the summer of 1549, and for the following two years he worked to spread the Gospel and found churches in that land.

In 1552 Francis returned to India, but immediately he set his sights on China. Foreigners were forbidden entry there, so his work wouldn’t be easy. He arranged to be brought to the Chinese mainland in secret. The plan fell through, however, and as he waited for another opportunity he was suddenly taken sick. He died, aged forty-six, on December 3, 1552, on the island of Sancian, just off the coast of mainland China.

Francis Xavier was beatified by Pope Paul on 25 October 1619. He was canonised on 12 March 1622 by Pope Gregory XV. He is the patron saint of Australia, Borneo, China, East Indies, Goa, Japan and New Zealand. In 1927, together with Thérèse of Lisieux, Francis Xavier was declared Patron Saint of All Missions. His feast day is December 3rd.