In the first of a series of Messenger articles, Gerry Bourke prepares us for the 500th anniversary of St. Francis Xavier’s birth (April 7, 2006) by recalling a life spent in fulfilment of the Jesuit ideal of travelling “through the world…in God’s service”.
This series of articles is to commemorate the fifth centenary of the birth of St. Francis Xavier in 1506. I hope they will help the reader to know better my friend, St. Francis, whose feast occurs on 3rd of this month.
Novena of Grace
In March 1969, I was on my first visit home from Japan, where I had been since the completion of my studies in Milltown Park, Dublin. I was preaching my first Novena of Grace in the Church of St. Francis Xavier in Gardiner Street, Dublin. A man stopped me on O’Connell Street, and thanked me for the Novena. He said that over the previous twenty-one years he had never once missed the Novena of Grace.
‘Frank,’ he said with enthusiasm, ‘has become my best friend in heaven. Yes, Father, I always call him Frank. I tell him all my troubles. There are no secrets between us. I ask him to direct me and help me. And in those twenty-one years, he has never once let me down. If I didn’t get what I asked for – what I thought was best – I got something better.’
I, too, feel that Francis has become my friend over the years. I haven’t made the Novena consistently, nor have I regularly asked Francis to intercede for me when I made prayers of petition. But when I was asked to choose the name of a saint at my confirmation, I chose Francis Xavier.
Later, while making a retreat with my classmates in a Jesuit Retreat House, I first came to know something about the community of which St. Francis had been a founding member, the Society of Jesus, and decided to become a Jesuit myself. Eight years later, while still preparing for the priesthood, I was on my way to Japan, one of the first two Irish Jesuits to be sent to that distant land. Four hundred years previously, Francis had been the first to preach the gospel in Japan.
Francis Xavier was born on 7 April 1506, in the Castle of Javier, in Navarre, which was then an independent region in the north of Spain. Four hundred and fifty years later, in August 1956, I spent a month in the restored Castle of Javier. My companions were twenty Jesuit scholastics from around Europe.
I had spent three years with them in Japan studying the Japanese language, and we were now scattered all over Europe in the final stage of our preparation for ordination to the priesthood. This ‘Japanese Month’ was an oppor-tunity for us to gather for a month in order to speak and study further the Japanese language.
It was also a God-given opportunity to reflect on the early life of Xavier and on the spirit that must have inspired this young ‘Man of Navarre’, as he spent his early years in the Castle of Javier. Every morning during the month that we spent in the castle, we attended Mass in the restored chapel, where Xavier must have prayed in his youth.
Above the altar, there was a life-size crucifix with a figure of Christ on the cross. It showed blood flowing down his face from the crown of thorns. The wounds from the scourging were all over his body; his hands and feet were pierced by the nails; his side was opened by the soldier’s lance. It was, indeed, a vivid portrayal of God’s love as shown by Christ’s death: ‘This is the proof of love, that he laid down his life for us’ (1 Jn.3:16). But the most striking feature was that, despite the suffering portrayed, there was an extraordinarily peaceful smile on the sacred face of Christ.
Baptized a Catholic shortly after his birth, Xavier must have had moments of fervour when his eyes strayed to the crucifix during the Mass which the family were privileged to have in their home. Or perhaps, like the orphan Marcellino in the popular Mexican film of that name, he came back on his own to talk to ‘the Man on the cross’.
I could imagine the young Xavier looking up at the suffering Christ on the cross and asking, ‘Why? Why? Why?’ His young mind would have been open to the love that was revealed by the cross. Perhaps, as he looked up at the peaceful smile on the face of Christ, he realized that Jesus was saying, ‘My suffering, Francis, is worthwhile, because my cross will inspire many, like you, to commit themselves in love to the service of others’.
Years later, I thought of Xavier when the father of a young boy told me after Mass that his son had come to him during the previous week and said, ‘I love you, Daddy, and I love Mummy, too, but I love God most of all…’
A Young Man’s Quest
Francis was the youngest of five children. When he was six years old, Navarre was attacked from the neighbouring provinces by the army of Spain. The father of Francis did not survive this disgrace, and he died four months later. His two brothers went off to fight in the war, which continued for two years until at last, in 1514, peace was declared and the sovereignty of Spain over Navarre was accepted.
The home and fortunes of the family of Francis were lost as a result of the war. He had to spend the rest of his youth in extremely deprived and challenging circumstances, which must have engendered in this young man a deep sense of insecurity.
But, like another young man of Spain portrayed in the musical, Man of La Mancha, this challenge seems to have engendered in Francis an ambition to excel in life, to achieve a position by which he would be able to help in restoring the family fortunes. Like the Man of La Mancha, he allowed himself ‘to dream the impossible dream, to fight the unbeatable foe, to bear with unbearable sorrow, to run where the brave dare not go…’
As we reflect on the life of Francis Xavier in these commemorative articles, we will, I hope, catch a glimpse of how Francis, too, had a similar quest, first for mundane glories, and then for a ‘heavenly cause’: ‘to follow that star, no matter how hopeless, no matter how far… to be willing to give when there’s no more to give…. to die so that honour and justice may live’.