A central pillar of the Society of Jesus is for its members to go wherever the need is greatest, to heal hardship and to help bring the word of God into people’s lives. This is their mandate today and it was how they aspired to operate when the society was founded in the mid-1550s. At this time the known world was vastly expanding, with recent discovery of the Americas to the west and the opening up of travel to the Far East. An important task as seen by the early Jesuits was to travel far and wide to offer their services, and none travelled farther than Saint Francis Xavier.
Saint Francis Xavier was born in the kingdom of Navarre, now in northern Spain, in 1506, the youngest son of a councillor to the king. As was common for prosperous families at the time, the youngest son was sent to get an education so as to enter ecclesiastical service, so in 1525 Xavier was sent to France where he studied philosophy at the University of Paris.
At college in Paris, Xavier shared a room with Peter Faber, a fellow student, and in 1529 they were joined in their lodgings by Ignatius de Loyola, a former soldier also studying at the university. Loyola had experienced a religious awakening and tried convincing his roommates to enter the priesthood as he intended to do himself. Xavier didn’t take to this new acquaintance at first but was won over by his spirituality and example. In 1534 Xavier, together with Loyola, Faber and several others, took vows of chastity, poverty and obedience in a church at Montmartre, in Paris. At Loyola’s behest he performed over thirty days the meditations and prayers set out by Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises.
In 1541, months after Pope Paul III officially recognised the Society of Jesus, Xavier set out with two other Jesuit companions from Portugal on a ship bound for west India. For three years, Xavier tireless moved from village to village along the southeastern coast of India, preaching from a catechism with the help of translators and baptising those who desired it. He also travelled to Portuguese owned islands of what are today Malaysia and Indonesia. While on one of these islands he met Anjirō, a Japanese man with a deep interest in Christianity. Together with Anjirō and three other Jesuits Xavier travelled to Japan in 1549, the first Jesuit missionaries to travel to Japan, arriving there only six years after the first Europeans to reach the island.
Xavier spent two years in Japan preaching the word of God, establishing several Christian communities across the island. Having accomplished this, he next set his eyes on China. Setting sail for China in 1552, Xavier reached the island of Shangchuan, just off the Chinese southern coast, where he was forced to await a ship to bring him to the mainland.
Xavier died, however, on that island, of a fever, after staying there for several months. The legacy of his missionary work is vast; Saint Francis established and cared for communities of Christians all across the Far East, many of which survive to this day. Saint Francis Xavier was beatified in 1619 and canonised in 1622, and because of his life’s work, he was made the patron saint of Catholic missions.