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The Catholic Defender: Saint Francis Xavier’s Story

"December third of this year will mark the fourth centenary of the death of St. Francis Xavier.

Among the glories of the saint which need to be vindicated at the present time are the miracles which four centuries of tradition have identified with his name.

Rationalist criticism has consciously singled out the supernatural phenomena reported in the story of his life.

The argument is that if you can eliminate divine intervention from the life of “one of the most noble and devoted men” in the history of the Church, you logically eliminate the same from the Church as a whole.

Even Catholics have been influenced by this criticism. Thus, according to a recent writer, “It is a myth he (Xavier) possessed the gift of tongues. Indeed about the only language he ever learned to speak and write with reasonable facility was Portuguese. It is a myth also that he was a great worker of miracles. His miracles were his patience, his generosity, his consuming love of Christ his Divine Master, his limitless trust in God.” Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Jesus asked, “What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Matthew 16:26a). The words were repeated to a young teacher of philosophy who had a highly promising career in academics, with success and a life of prestige and honor before him.

Francis Xavier, 24 at the time, and living and teaching in Paris, did not heed these words at once. They came from a good friend, Ignatius of Loyola, whose tireless persuasion finally won the young man to Christ.

Francis then made the spiritual exercises under the direction of Ignatius, and in 1534, joined his little community, the infant Society of Jesus. Together at Montmartre they vowed poverty, chastity, obedience, and apostolic service according to the directions of the pope.

From Venice, where he was ordained a priest in 1537, Xavier went on to Lisbon and from there sailed to the East Indies, landing at Goa, on the west coast of India. For the next 10 years he labored to bring the faith to such widely scattered peoples as the Hindus, the Malayans, and the Japanese.

He spent much of that time in India, and served as provincial of the newly established Jesuit province of India.

Wherever he went, Xavier lived with the poorest people, sharing their food and rough accommodations.

He spent countless hours ministering to the sick and the poor, particularly to lepers. Very often he had no time to sleep or even to say his breviary but, as we know from his letters, he was filled always with joy.

Xavier went through the islands of Malaysia, then up to Japan. He learned enough Japanese to preach to simple folk, to instruct, and to baptize, and to establish missions for those who were to follow him. From Japan he had dreams of going to China, but this plan was never realized.

Before reaching the mainland, he died. His remains are enshrined in the Church of Good Jesus in Goa. He and Saint Thérèse of Lisieux were declared co-patrons of the missions in 1925.

Miracles, said to have been performed by Saint Francis Xavier, are depicted on this coffer's side, one about the raising of a dead man, and another alluding to the help given to the Vicar of Malacca, where the saint drove away demons persecuting him at the time of his death.

Prophet and healer, noted for missionary fervor, Francis Xavier died from a fever while performing missionary work in China in 1552. Pope Gregory V canonized him in 1622. Pope Pius X declared him patron of all foreign missions.

Since the 1500s the miracle commission and the Vatican's theologians have approved some 1,200 instances of miracles. How many have been rejected remains uncertain

The majority are faith healings, exorcisms, resurrections, and control over nature.

He led an extensive mission into Asia, mainly the Portuguese Empire in the East, and was influential in evangelisation work, most notably in early modern India. He was extensively involved in the missionary activity in Portuguese India.

His first field of action was the city of Goa, the main Portuguese colony in the East, where Europeans, oblivious of their civilizing mission, engaged in lucrative commerce and allowed themselves to be swept away by the sensuality and vices of the pagan world.

In a few weeks, the beneficial effects of the new missionary’s presence, preaching, and active zeal were felt in that city: “So many people came to confession that if I were divided into ten parts, all of them would have to hear confessions” – he wrote to the Jesuits in Rome in September 1542.

“Such is the multitude of those who are converted to the faith of Christ in this land where I walk, that it often happens to me that my arms are tired from so much baptizing, there are days when I baptize a whole town”.

A year later, he reported new wonders worked by God in those parts:

“News from these parts of India: I let you know that God our Lord has moved many, in a kingdom where I am going, to become Christians, so that in one month I baptized more than ten thousand people. (…) After baptizing them, I commanded them to tear down the houses where they had their idols, and I ordered them to break the idol images into small pieces. When I finish doing this in one place, I go to another, and in this way I go from place to place making Christians.”

Francis immediately saw the wealth that would be to the Church if the people represented by this intrepid neophyte were sanctified by the waters of Baptism.

Struggling against all kinds of adversity, Francis spent more than two years in the far-off Empire of the Rising Sun, founding churches, proclaiming the true faith to princes and nobles, to poor peasants and innocent children.

In a letter of November of that same year, he declared to his brothers living in Rome: “From the experience we have of Japan, I tell you that its people are the best of those that have been discovered so far."

After he had traveled in all directions in the Far East for ten years and raised the Cross in the Japanese archipelago, Francis’ heart, insatiable for the glory of God, set out to conquer new peoples for his King and Lord: China was now to be his great goal.

Because of the importance of the Chinese empire, its incalculable population, and, above all, its prestige and cultural wealth, he understood that if he caused the Baptismal waters to flow there, the whole of Asia would fall at the feet of the Divine Redeemer.

Thus, on April 17, 1552, he boarded the ship Santa Cruz to conquer the “empire of his dreams.”

However, only a few days of sailing had elapsed, when a terrible storm broke out. The ship’s crew, frightened by the violence of the elements and having lost any hope of salvation, asked with great cries for the sacrament of Penance.

Francis Xavier, unperturbed, recollected himself in deep prayer. And immediately – just as once before, at the voice of the Divine Savior, the waters of Lake Genezaré had calmed down – the wind ceased to blow, and the waves became smooth and calm through the faith and prayers of this humble conqueror of empires.

But from this moment on, the infernos did not cease to raise obstacles and thwart the journey. “Do not doubt that the devil in any way wants the Company of the name of Jesus to enter China,” he wrote in November 1552 to Fathers Francisco Pérez and Gaspar Barzeo.

Upon arriving in the city of Malacca, the last stop before entering Chinese waters, the Portuguese captain of that port – who owed his position to Francisco’s good offices and recommendations – unexpectedly prevented the trip from continuing, claiming that he alone was in command of an expedition to China…

All pleas and entreaties having failed, Francis Xavier used a last resort: he presented the papal bull appointing him papal legate, which until then he had never used, and demanded full freedom to travel to China on behalf of the Pope and the King of Portugal.

Heartbroken, Francis revealed to Father Gaspar Barzeo in July 1552: “You cannot believe how much I was persecuted in Malacca. I am going to the islands of Canton, in the empire of China, forsaken of all human favor.”

“The dangers that we run in this enterprise are two, according to the people of the land: the first is that the man who takes us, after receiving the two hundred cruzados, abandons us on a desert island or throws us into the sea; the second is that, upon reaching Canton, the governor will send us to torture or captivity” – wrote Xavier.

But the indefatigable apostle did not fear these dangers, because he was sure that “without God’s permission, the demons and their minions can do nothing against us."

Accompanied by only two assistants, an Indian and a Chinese, he stayed on the island of Sancian, waiting for the return of the merchant who had promised to transport him. He celebrated the Holy Sacrifice of the Altar there every day, looking without ceasing at the continent for which he so ardently longed.

The physical strength of the ardent missionary was then at its end. A very high fever forced him to retire to his improvised hut, where, abandoned by men and suffering cold, hunger, and all sorts of privations, he was to spend the last days of his heroic existence in this land of exile.

The Lord of Heaven and Earth reserved the most heroic and glorious of deaths for that man who never tired, that apostle who dragged the crowds with his words, that thaumaturgist who overcame great obstacles by performing amazing miracles: following the example of his Divine Master, Francis Xavier would die at the peak of abandonment and apparent contradiction.

A few days before he surrendered his spirit, he went into delirium, revealing the magnitude of the holocaust that Providence was asking of him: he spoke continually of China, of his vehement desire to convert that empire, and of the glory that would come to God if those people were drawn to the Holy Catholic Church.

And in the early morning hours of December 3, 1552, Francis Xavier died sweetly in the Lord, without a single complaint or claim, seeing in the distance that China he had not been able to conquer and that he had so desired to lay at the feet of its King, Our Lord Jesus Christ.

At that time the Jesuit Almeida, writing at great length to the brethren, stated that he had found a pious woman who believed that a book left behind by Xavier had healed sick folk when it was laid upon them, and that he had met an old man who preserved a whip left by the saint which, when properly applied to the sick, had been found good both for their bodies and their souls. From these and other small beginnings grew, always luxuriant and sometimes beautiful, the vast mass of legends which we shall see hereafter.

This silence regarding his miracles was clearly not due to any “evil heart of unbelief.” On the contrary, these good missionary fathers were prompt to record the slightest occurrence which they thought evidence of the Divine favour: it is indeed touching to see how eagerly they grasp at the most trivial things which could be thus construed. Their ample faith was fully shown. One of them, in Acosta's collection, sends a report that an illuminated cross had been recently seen in the heavens; another, that devils had been cast out of the 4 natives by the use of holy water; another, that various cases of disease had been helped and even healed by baptism;

on a certain occasion Xavier, by the sign of the cross, made sea-water fresh, so that his fellow-passengers and the crew could drink it;

“Even if he had been endowed with the apostolic gift of tongues, he could not have spread more widely the glory of Christ.”

But Father Bouhours, a century later, writing of Xavier at the same period, says, “He preached in the afternoon to the Japanese in their language, but so naturally and with so much ease that he could not be taken for a foreigner.”

The reports are many that St. Francis Xavier healed the sick and raised the dead in various places; brought back a lost boat to his ship; was on one occasion lifted from the earth bodily and transfigured before the bystanders; and that, to punish a blaspheming town, he caused an earthquake and buried the offenders in cinders from a volcano: this was afterward still more highly developed, and the saint was represented in engravings as calling down fire from heaven and thus destroying the town.

Francis Xavier having during one of his voyages lost overboard a crucifix, it was restored to him after he had reached the shore by a crab.

Curious, too, is the after-growth of the miracle of the crab returning the crucifix. In its first form Xavier lost the crucifix in the sea, and the earlier biographers dwell on the sorrow which he showed in consequence; but the later historians declare that the saint threw the crucifix into the sea in order to still a tempest,( a violent windy storm) and that, after his safe getting to land, a crab brought it to him on the shore. In this form we find it among illustrations of books of devotion in the next century.

His last words were these phrases of a canticle of glory: In You, I hope, Lord. Do not abandon me forever!

The cardinal also dwelt on miracles performed by Xavier's relics after his death, the most original being that sundry lamps placed before the image of the saint and filled with holy water burned as if filled with oil.

For, shortly after Xavier's heroic and beautiful death in 1552, stories of miracles wrought by him began to appear.

First, John Deyro said he knew that Xavier had the gift of prophecy; but, unfortunately, Xavier himself had reprimanded and cast off Deyro for untruthfulness and cheatery.

Secondly, it was reported vaguely that at Cape Comorin many persons affirmed that Xavier had raised a man from the dead.

Thirdly, Father Pablo de Santa Fe had heard that in Japan Xavier had restored sight to a blind man. This seems a feeble beginning, but little by little the stories grew, and in 1555 De Quadros, Provincial of the Jesuits in Ethiopia, had heard of nine miracles, and asserted that Xavier had healed the sick and cast out devils.

The next year, being four years after Xavier's death, King John III of Portugal, a very devout man, directed his viceroy Barreto to draw up and transmit to him an authentic account of Xavier's miracles, urging him especially to do the work “with zeal and speedily.”

We can well imagine what treasures of grace an obsequious viceroy, only too anxious to please a devout king, could bring together by means of the hearsay of ignorant, compliant natives through all the little towns of Portuguese India.


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