1902 Encyclopedia > St. Francis Xavier

St. Francis Xavier
Spanish Jesuit missionary
(1506-52)




ST. FRANCIS XAVIER (FRANCISCO XAVIER) (1506-1552), surnamed the "Apostle of the Indies," was the youngest son of Juan de Jasso, privy councilor to Jean d’Albert, king of Navarre, and his wife Maria Azpilcueta, Xavier, sole heiress of two noble Navarrese families. He was born at his mother’s castle of Xavero or Xavier, at the foot of the Pyreness and close to the little town of Sanguesa, on 7th April 1506, according to a family register, though his earlier biographers fix his birth in 1497. Following a Spanish custom of the time, which left the surname of either parent optional with children, he was called by his mother’s family name, and grew up tall, strong, healthy, and active both in mind and body, with a lively, cheerful disposition.

St. Francis Xavier image

St. Francis Xavier
(Japanese portrait with monoyama inscription.
Kobe Museum, Kobe, Japan.)


He showed no taste, however, for the career of arms, and early disclosed a preference for literary pursuits. His father accordingly strained his slender resources to send him, in 1524, to the university of Paris, then much frequented by Spaniards, where he entered the College of St Barbara, and made such rapid progress that he was appointed in 1528 lecturer in Aristotelian philosophy at the College de Beauvais. In 1530 he took his degree as master of arts.

The same year which saw his nomination as lecturer at the university saw also the arrival there of the man who was to mould his destiny and that of his chamber-mate Pierre le Fevre, namely, Ignatius Loyola, even then meditating the foundation of his celebrated institute (see JESUITS, vol. xiii. p. 652). Ignatius speedily recognized in Xavier the qualities which made him the first missionary of his time, -- and set himself to win him as an associate in his vast enterprise. Xavier, after a protracted resistance, yielded to the spell, and was one of the little band of seven persons, including Loyola himself, who took the original Jesuit vows and founded the company, on 15th August 1534, in the crypt of Notre Dame de Montmartre.

They continued in Paris for two years longer, though there is some uncertainty whether Xavier retained his chair; but on 15th November 1536 they started for Italy, to concert with Ignatius (then in Spain, but purposing to join them) plans for a mission to convert the Moslems of Palestine. About Epiphany-tide 1537, after a journey attended with much fatigue and some danger, owing to the disturbed posture of political affairs, they arrived in Venice, where they found Ignatius awaiting them. As some months must needs elapse before they could sail for the Holy Land, Ignatius determined that the time should be spent partly in hospital work at Venice and later in the journey to Rome, there to obtain their credentials. Accordingly, Xavier devoted himself for nine weeks to the care of the patients in the hospital for incurables, at the end of which time he set out with eight companions for Rome, where Pope Paul III. received them favorably, sanctioned their enterprise, and gave them facilities for obtaining ordination.

Returning to Venice, Xavier was ordained priest on Midsummer Day 1537; but the outbreak of war between Venice and Turkey put an end to the Palestine expedition. Hereupon the companions agreed to disperse for a twelve-month’s home mission work in the Italian cities, and Bobadilla and Xavier betook themselves, first to Monselice, thence to Bologna, where they remained till summoned to Rome by Ignatius at the close of 1538, to consider his plans for erecting the company into a religious order, with a formal constitution under papal sanction. The draft rules were signed by the whole number on 15th April 1539, though it was not till 1540 that the pope’s confirmation was given, nor was it published till 1541. While the remaining members dispersed anew for work in various parts of Italy, Ignatius retained Xavier at Rome as secretary to the new institute.

Meanwhile John III., king of Portugal had resolved on sending a mission to his East Indian dominions, and, at the instance of his minister Govea, applied through his envoy Pedro de Mascarenhas to the pope for six Jesuits to undertake the task. Ignatius could spare but two, and chose Rodriguez and Bodadilla for the purpose; and the former set out at once for Lisbon to confer with the king. Bobadilla, sent for to Rome, arrived there just before Mascarenhas was about to depart, but felt too ill to respond to the call made on him. Hereupon Ignatius on 15th March 1540 told Xavier to leave Rome the next day with Mascarenhas, in order to join Rodriguez in the Indian mission. Xavier complied, merely waiting long enough to obtain the pope’s benediction, and set out for Lisbon, where he was presented to the king, and soon won his entire confidence, attested notably by procuring for him from the pope four briefs, one of them appointing him papal nuncio in the Indies.

On 7th April 1541, his thirty-fifth birthday, he sailed from Lisbon with Martin Alphonso de Souza, governor of India, and, refusing all accommodations for the voyage offered him, except a few books and some clothing, lived amongst the common sailors on boards, ministering to their religious and temporal needs, especially during an outbreak of scurvy. After five months’ voyage the ship reached Mozambique, where the captain resolved to winter, and Xavier was prostrated with a severe attack of fever.





When the voyage was resumed, the ship touched at the Mohammedan town of Melinde, whose sultan told Xavier of the marked decline of Islam. But neither there nor at the island of Socotra, the next point of arrival, where Christianity was equally declining, was the missionary able to remain long enough to attempt any work; and the finally reached Goa on 6th May 1542.

Exhibiting his brief to Joao d’ Albuquerque, bishop of Goa, he asked his permission to officiate in the diocese, and at once began a mission, walking through the streets ringing a small bell, and telling all those attracted by its sound to come themselves, and send their children and servants, to the "Christian doctrine" or catechetical instruction in the principal church.

He spent five months actively employed in Goa, where he is stated to have effected much reformation in morals, and then turned his attention to the fishery coast, extending from Cape Comorin to the Paumbum Pass, where he had heard that the Paravas, a tribe engaged in the pearl-fishery, had relapsed into heathenism after having professed Christianity. He labored assiduously amongst them for fifteen months, and at the end of 1543 returned to Goa to procure colleagues for the mission. Travancore was his next field of action, and there he is said to have succeeded in founding no fewer than forty-five Christian settlements, each with numerous converts.

It is to be noted that his own letters contain, both at this time and later on, express disproof of his possession of that miraculous gift of tongues with which he was credited even in his lifetime, and which is attributed to him in the Breviary office for his festival. Not only was he obliged to employ interpreters, but he relates that in their absence he was compelled to use signs only, and he never appears to have displayed any special aptitude for acquiring new languages.

He sent a missionary to the isle of Manaar, and himself visited Ceylon, where he proved unsuccessful in an effort to invoke Portuguese interference in a dynastic dispute, and betook himself thence to Meliapur, the traditionary tomb of St Thomas the apostle, which he reached in April 1544, continuing there four months.

His next sphere of active work was Malacca, which he reached on 25th September 1545, and where he remained another four months, but had comparatively little success, and abandoned it at last as wholly intractable. While there he addressed a letter to King John of Portugal, urging to set up the Inquisition in Goa to repress Judaism, and was readily listened to, although the actual erection of the tribunal did not take place till 1560, some years after his own death.

After a missionary expedition to Amboyna and other isles of the Molucca group, he returned to Malacca in July 1547, and found three Jesuit recruits from Europe awaiting him. An attack upon Malacca by the sultan of Acheen, which the governor was disinclined to punish, aroused the warlike temper which slumbered in Xavier’s breast, and he compelled the organization of an expedition to chastise the invaders, which proved a triumph and much increased his local influence.

While in Malacca he met one Han-Siro, a Japanese exile (known to the biographies as Anger), whose conversation fired him with zeal for the conversion of Japan. But he first paid a series of visits to the scenes of his former labors, and then, returning to Malacca, took ship for Japan, accompanied by Hamn-Siro, now known as Paul of the Holy Faith.

After a perilous voyage they reached Kagoshima, at the south of Kiusiu, the southernmost of the larger Japanese islands, and in the territory of the daimio of Satsuma. Kagoshima was Han-Siro’s birthplace, and he was himself heartily welcomed by his friends, whom he induced to extend their good-will to his companions. The daimio, who desired to secure the Portuguese trade, was friendly at first; but, finding that the merchant vessels preferred the safer anchorage of Firando (or Hirado) far to the north of his fief, he withdrew his permission to preach and threatened converts with the penalty of death.

Xavier judged it well to move elsewhither, and traveled on foot to Firando, making some converts on the road, and proving far more successful at Firando itself than in Kagoshima. Thence he proceeded to the capital of the empire, the city then known as Miako, subsequently as Kioto, and now as Saikio or "western capital." But the mikados or emperors had been little more than puppets under the control of the shoguns or hereditary commanders-in-chief for some centuries before this time, so that Xavier judged that he could work more effectually at the courts of the great daimios than at that of their nominal sovereign.

He also noticed that asceticism and poverty had no such attractive power in Japan as they had exercised in India, and determined to try the effect of some measure of pomp and display on his return from Miako. Making but a brief stay at Firando, he went to Amangguchi (Yamaguchi), capital of Suwo, and there presented himself to the daimio in some state, bringing him valuable presents.

He was allowed to preach, and had some success, which encouraged him to proceeded to Fucheo, capital of the fief of Bungo (Bugo), where his mission prospered more than anywhere else in Japan; and feeling that he could now safely leave the work in other hands, he quitted that empire in 1551, intending to attempt next the conversion of China. On board the "Santa Cruz," the vessel in which he sailed to Malacca, he discussed this project with Diego Pereira, the captain, and devised the plan of persuading the viceroy of Portuguese India to dispatch an embassy to China, in whose train he might enter, in despite of the law which then excluded foreigners from that empire.

He reached Goa in February 1552, and after settling some disputes which had arisen in his absence obtained from the viceroy consent to the plan of a Chinese embassy and to the nomination of Pereira as envoy. Large sums for the necessary expenses were contributed by the treasury, by Pereira himself, and by subscriptions from private persons interested in the missionary part of the scheme.





Xavier left India on 25th April 1552 and betook himself to Malacca, there to meet Pereira and to re-embark on the "Santa Cruz." But Alvaro d’Ataide, governor of Malacca, had a private grudge against Pereira, and besides desired the Chinese embassy for himself, and therefore threw difficulties in the way of the expedition, though Xavier, anticipating something of the kind, had procured for him the high office of captaincy of the neighboring seas, and had also provided himself with stringent orders from the viceroy for the furtherance of his object, with threats of punishment for disobedience. Ataide, however, paid no attention to them, and laid an embargo on the "Santa Cruz." Xavier, who with characteristic modesty had kept his dignity as papal nuncio private (save for exhibiting the brief to the bishop at Goa on his first arrival in India), determined to avail himself of it now, and desired the vicar-general of Malacca to inform the governor, and to remind him that such as impeded a nuncio in the discharge of his office subject to excommunication by the pope himself. Ataide paid no more regard to the papal brief than he had done to the viceroy’s letter, and even charged Xavier with having forged it, -- if not both documents, -- while the people of Malacca sided with him against Xavier and Pereira.

At last, however, he agreed to a compromise. The embassy was stopped and Pereira detained, while some of the governor’s people were substituted for as many of the crew of the "Santa Cruz," in which Xavier and two companions were allowed to proceed. The vicar-general asked him to take formal leave of the governor; but he refused, saying that they would meet no more till the day of judgment, when Ataide must give account for his resistance to the spread of the gospel, and, shaking the dust of Malacca from his shoes, he embarked 16th July 1552.

After a short stay at Singapore, whence he dispatched several letters to India and Europe, the ship at the end of August 1552 reached San-chan (Chang-chuang), an island at no great distance from Canton, which served, as port and rendezvous for Europeans, not then admitted to trade directly with China.

Xavier was seized with fever soon after his arrival, and was, in addition, delayed by the failure of the interpreter he had engaged, as well as by the reluctance of the Portuguese to attempt the voyage to Canton for the purpose of landing him. He arranged for his passage in a Chinese junk and had made all other preparations for starting, when he was again attacked by fever, and died on 2nd December 1552. He was buried close to the cabin where he had died, but his body was later transferred to Malacca, and thence to Goa, where it still lies. He was beatified by Paul V. in 1619 and canonized by Gregory XV. in 1621.

Further Reading

The chief authorities for the life of St Francis Xavier are De Vita Sancti Francisci Xaverii Libri VI., by the Jesuit Torsellino (Tursellinus), Rome, 1596, of which there is a vigorous English version, Paris, 1632; another biography by Lucena, Lisbon, 1600; his Letters, published in seven books by the Jesuit Poussines (Possinus), Rome, 1667; a fuller collection of the Letters by another Jesuit, Menchacha, Bologna, 1795, translated into French by Léon Pagès, Paris, 1854; Faria y Souza, Asia Portuguesa, Lisbon 1655; Bouhours, Vie de St François Xavier, Paris, 1684; Bartoli, Asia, part i., Rome, 1653; H. J. Coleridge, Life and Letters of St Francis Xavier, London, 1872; while a graphic sketch of the more striking episodes is to be found in Sir James Stephen’s article on the "Founders of Jesuitism", reprinted in his Essays in Ecclesiastical Biography, London, 1849. ( R.F.L.)



The above article was written by Rev. Richard Frederick Littledale, LL.D., D.C.L., author of Religious Communities of Women in the Early Church and The Catholic Ritual in the Church of England.




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