If there is anything destined to scupper my ABC Wednesday posts, it has to be the letter X. There just aren’t that many people who have that as an initial, but while there are I’ll carry on, this time with Francis Xavier.
Xavier was a Roman Catholic missionary and co-founder of the Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits and more provocatively as God’s Marines.
He was born in Navarre in the Basque country of Spain in 1506 at the family castle of Xabier, the name deriving from ‘etxaberri’, or ‘new house’ in the Basque language.
The Spanish invaded Navarre in 1512 and in 1516 Xavier’s brothers took part in a failed attempt to drive them out which resulted in the family’s land being confiscated and their castle all but destroyed save for their living quarters.
Xavier grew up in a world of warfare as France and Spain vied for the disputed territory and in 1525 he went to study at the Collège Sainte-Barbe in Paris.
Although seemingly destined for academic life, Xavier’s thoughts turned more to missionary service and in 1534 he founded the Society of Jesus in a small chapel in Montmartre, making vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and also to convert the Muslims in the Middle East.
Xavier spent much of the remainder of his life in missions in Asia, partly to convert the local people, but also to bolster the faith of Portuguese settlers.
His first missionary work was among the Paravars on the east coast of southern India. He lived in a sea cave in Manapad and built 40 churches along the coast, including St Stephen’s at Kombuthurai.
Xavier later travelled to Japan and what is now Indonesia and gained several Japanese converts who were to travel with him.
After briefly returning to India, they again visited Japan, but he found it difficult to convert the people to Christianity. To begin with, Xavier struggled with the language which was unlike any he had encountered, but the other obstacle was that many Japanese were already followers of Buddhism or Shinto.
They also struggled with the concept of hell as a place where their ancestors were forced to live!
But Xavier’s great ambition was to take the word of God to China and in August 1552 he reached the island of Shangchuan, eight miles from the mainland.
He had an agreement with a local to take him to the mainland in exchange for a large sum but died from a fever while waiting for the boat to arrive.
Xavier’s body was buried on the beach at Shangchuan but was removed the following year and re-interred at St Paul’s church in the Portuguese colony of Malacca.
It didn’t stay there long. Xavier’s remains were again removed and taken to their final resting place at the Basilica of Bom Jesus where it was later placed in a glass container encased in a silver casket in December 1637.