In our first article on the home life of Francis Xavier, we reflected on how his family environment prepared him to be a man well formed in the Catholic faith. But we also saw that, as a result of war in his native Navarre and the change in his family circumstances, he was filled with the ambition of restoring the family fortunes. It was this ambition that, eventually, brought him to Paris, where he became a student of the Sorbonne.
In his ambition and desire to satisfy his own needs, this ‘man of Navarre’ followed a star that led him to be guided more by the values of the world than by his faith. Because of his interest and prowess in sports, it has been said that ‘the crossbar replaced the cross’ in his life. To sport, as well as to his studies, he devoted himself energetically and sought success at any price.
Like many another zealous student, he forgot his ideals, as he sought a break from his studies. Peter Faber, his first room-mate at the university, wrote, ‘We hampered and obstructed ourselves gravely, or at least I did, by refusing to admit that the Cross of Christ had any claim to a place in our studies, either at the beginning, or in the middle, or at the end.’
And Ignatius Loyola wrote after the death of Francis: ‘He related to me the story of his life from its beginning up to that time of our conversation and friendship…. Speaking of the life of the students, he said that they – and his master also – were given to debauchery. Often they would steal from the college at night under the leadership of the master, and take him, Francis, with them. But terrified by the loathsome ulcers which he saw both master and pupils contract, he did not dare to continue associating with them…’ It would seem that all that kept him from serious sin was fear of disease!
Jesus, as we read in the Gospels (Mt.4:1-11; Mk.1:12; Lk.4:1-13), was tempted by the devil to acquire possessions by changing ‘stones to bread’, prestige by putting on a ‘display’ for the people to see, and power, by kingdoms that would be given if he accepted the rule of the devil over him. These temptations came to Francis, as they do to us all, in one form or another.
Francis needed money (bread) to satisfy his needs to continue his studies and to experience the fun that others of his age sought after. Like many others, he used ‘every trick in the trade’ to acquire possessions. He was surely tempted, too, to prestige and power, as he continued his study at the prestigious university in Paris.
Ignatius of Loyola
Francis Xavier was twenty-three years of age, and completing his first four years at the University of Paris, when Ignatius Loyola entered his life. Ignatius, then thirty-seven, was assigned to the same room that Peter Faber and Francis occupied. Ignatius had been wounded at Pamplona in the same war that had brought down the house of Javier. In his convalescence he had converted from a worldly life and devoted himself to prayer and pilgrimage. Now, at a comparatively late age, he was beginning his university studies.
Peter Faber reached out right away to help ‘the old man’, but Francis was more inclined to treat the new lodger as a joke, and was sarcastic about his efforts to bring students closer to God. But he was challenged not just by the words of Ignatius, but the example of his kindness and love that was shown in his response to the needs of others, including Francis.
There is a painting that strives to capture the moment of his conversion. It is treasured in Jesuit churches and schools throughout the world. Two men are walking together along an open corridor. One is dressed in the sombre garb of a simple student, the other in the attire of a ‘Don Quixote type’ of the 16th century. In the background can be seen groups of students deep in discussion, unaware of the great drama that is being enacted nearby.
Moment of grace
With arms outstretched and eyes pleading from his bearded ascetical face, Ignatius is putting his whole heart into that momentous question which our Lord had put to His disciples: ‘Master Francis, what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and suffers the loss of his own soul?’ (Mk.8:36). The arrogant swagger of Francis has ceased. His young face has become serious. His right hand is stroking his well-trimmed beard. He has heard these words before, but now their full significance strikes him in a moment of grace.
The whole world, with all its beauty, all its attractions, all that he has been striving for, means nothing, if, in the process of acquiring it, he loses his immortal soul. How simple the conclusion seemed, yet it must have been a moment of amazing grace to bring about the complete commitment to a new life for Francis. He joined Ignatius and Peter Faber to become the first members of the Company of Jesus, later to be known as the Society of Jesus.
Spirit of love
St. Paul reminded his disciple, Timothy, ‘to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline’ (2 Tim.1:7).
Francis, after his conversion, must have recalled his own baptism in the chapel of Javier Castle and the crucifix that hung there. He realized that Christ thirsted for his soul and for souls of others who do not know Him. His cry was to become, ‘Da mihi animas, cetera tolle!’ (Give me souls, take everything else!).
Later, in a letter written from the missions, Francis writes: ‘I have often felt strongly moved to descend on the universities of Europe, especially Paris and its Sorbonne, and to cry aloud like a madman to those who have more learning than good will to employ it advantageously….’
And in urging another Jesuit, Simon Rodriquez, to seek help from the king of Portugal for the missions, he writes: ‘If the king once realized the faithful love I bear him, I would ask a favour of his hands, which is that he should daily, for a quarter of an hour, beseech God to bring home to him the meaning of our Lord’s words, ‘What does it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul?’ It is time, dearest Simon, to wake up his highness.’
At the last supper, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘I no longer call you servants, but friends’. Francis Xavier was blessed with good friends. It was through friends like the priest in his home parish, that he was able, despite the difficult circumstances of his family, to receive sufficient education to be accepted by the University of Paris.
Companions in the Lord
He was blessed by his friendship with Peter Faber, and then by his meeting with Ignatius Loyola, who brought him to the deep realization that Jesus was his friend. These three supported one another and shared the good news with others. Gradually their numbers increased until they formed the Society of Jesus.
The first name the early Jesuits gave themselves was not Jesuits, or even the Society of Jesus, but the Company of Jesus. They were companions in the Lord.
The relationship between Ignatius and Francis developed into a deep personal friendship. Ignatius helped Francis, as also Peter Faber and some others who joined them, to come to ‘a personal love for the person of Jesus’. He used his own personal experience after his conversion, and the notes which were later to become the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, as he became their guide and trusted friend.
Venice and Rome
Peter Faber was ordained priest, and said his first Mass on 22 July 1534. In that same year, on the Feast of the Assumption, they all gathered in the Church of Notre Dame de Montmartre in Paris and promised to serve Jesus in poverty and chastity. Some years later they went together to Rome, and, with the approval of the Pope, Paul III, Francis, with Ignatius and four others, were ordained in Venice on 24 June, 1537.
Their original intention was to go on to Jerusalem, but when this was seen to be inadvisable they decided to return to Rome and place themselves at the service of the Pope. They preached and took care of the sick in that city and eventually became the first ‘companions in the Lord’ of the Company of Jesus, later to become known as the Society
of Jesus. Francis was called upon to assist Ignatius as he strove to cope with the many requests for help that were made on this new body of men.
The vast treasury of letters that Francis and Ignatius exchanged in later life testify to the friendship that developed between them. In one reply to a letter of Ignatius, Francis writes, Among many other holy words and consolations of your letter I read the concluding one, ‘Entirely yours, without power or possibility of ever forgetting you, Ignatio’. I read them with tears, and with tears now write them, remembering the past and the great love which you always bore towards me and still bear.
To another Jesuit, Francis wrote, If you remember me as well as I remember you, then we are as good as together all the day long. Toward the end of his life, he had to admonish a Jesuit for what he considered his wrong approach to the local people. It must have been a consolation for the man in question to read the concluding words: “O Cyprian, if you only guessed the love with which I write these things to you, you would have me in your mind day and night, and you might perhaps even weep remembering my great love for you. If it were possible in this life to see into the hearts of men, believe me, my brother Cyprian, you would be seen clearly in mine.”
Consolation for us
We may envy those who received such letters from St. Francis, assuring them of his friendship. But may we not take consolation from these words written to St. Ignatius from the faraway missions?
Though Our Lord has put us so far apart, yet, if I am not mistaken, the sundering miles cause no lessening of love, no forgetfulness in those who love one another in Him, and are united in charity. In my opinion, we see one another all the time, though we are no longer able to have the old companionable relations…
If he could write that, the sundering miles cause no lessening of love when he was 12,000 earthly miles away, how much more could he speak these words to us now when he is with God? There is no lessening of his love as he responds to his friends today.
Blessing of friends
The grace of friendship between disciples of Christ is very much needed in our world today. The tragedy of Christianity is not only the division that exists among Churches, but the division within the Churches. There is a need for us to support one another, and to base our apostolic efforts on mutual love and trust – in parishes, among priests, in religious communities, between priests, religious and laity.
The older I get, the more I thank God for the blessing of friends, both within the Society of Jesus and outside. There is friendship with Jesus himself, but there is also a precious gift of friendship with those who are united with us in the Lord.
In a letter to Ignatius, Francis wrote: We pray and beseech you by the friendship which unites us so intimately in Christ Jesus, to give us your ideas and counsels as to the way in which we should proceed in order the better to serve God our Lord. May we not in our prayers, use similar words as we pray to our friend, St. Francis, for ourselves and for others?