Little Lives of the Great Saints – Saint Francis Xavier, S.J., Apostle of the Indies

detail from the painting 'Saint Gregory the Great with Saints Ignatius and Francix Xavier', by Guercino, c.1626, oil on canvas, National Gallery, London, EnglandArticle

Died A.D. 1552.

Saint Francis Savier, the prince of modern missionaries and one of the glories of the sixteenth century, was born in 1506, at the castle of Xavier, not far from Pampeluna, in the north of Spain. His parents were pious, wealthy, and noble. The Saint was the youngest of a numerous family.

From infancy Francis was kind and attractive. He was naturally gifted, and early exhibited an intense love of study. Though all his brothers had embraced the profession of arms, he seemed to care only for books and learning.

His parents wisely seconded his inclination, and at the age of eighteen he was sent to the University of Paris. He was a hard-working, ambitious student. He aimed to conquer the world of knowledge; and, on taking the degree of Master of Arts, he began to teach philosophy.

When Saint Ignatius came to continue his studies at the French capital, he made the acquaintance of Xavier. He was struck with the generous soul and fine qualities of the young professor, who seemed to have but one failing – his head was full of earthly ambition.

These rare spirits were attracted to each other. Soon they became bosom friends. “What will it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” said Ignatius one day, with gentle force, to his companion. He pointed out that such a noble soul ought not to confine itself to the vain honors of this world. Celestial glory is the only object worthy of ambition. It is even contrary to reason not to prefer that which is eternal to that which vanishes with the fleetness of a dream

This pointed reasoning made a deep impression on the ardent soul of Xavier; and, after a short interior struggle, grace completed the conquest. He became a soldier of the Cross.

In 1534, on the feast of the Assumption, Saint Ignatius and his six companions – one of whom was our Saint – made a vow at Montmartre, Paris, to visit the Holy Land, and unite their labors for the conversion of infidels; but if this should not be found practicable, to cast themselves at the feet of the Vicar of Christ, and offer their services wherever he might wish to give them employment. Xavier was ordained priest in 1537.

The great design, however, of converting the Holy Land had to be abandoned, and the new Society of Jesus found a wider sphere for its sublime mission.

At the request of the King of Portugal, two fathers were ordered to plant the faith in the East Indies. One of these was Francis Xavier. He received the benediction of the Pope, and, with a brief in his hand constituting him Apostolic Nuncio, he stepped with a light heart on board the chief vessel of a squadron that sailed from Lisbon on the 7th of April, 1541. It was on that very day that he had completed his thirty-fifth year.

When asked to accept the aid of a servant, he declined. He said he had the full use of his two hands, and that was enough. But when some one suggested that it was unbecoming to see an Apostolic Legate dressing his own food and washing his linen on deck, the Saint answered that he could give no scandal so long as he did no wrong.

He arrived at the roadstead of Goa in the month of May, 1542, after a long and dangerous voyage, during which he had excited in all the spirit of piety, courage and cheerfulness. It was during this voyage that he first got the name of “Holy Father,” which was ever after given him alike by Mohammedans, pagans, and Christians.

Xavier landed, and spent the greater part of the first night in prayer. He wished to call down the blessing of Heaven on his coming labors.

It was thus braced up with supernatural strength that the next day surveyed the vast, uninviting field. The state of religion in India was truly deplorable. The name of Christian, beautiful and glorious in itself, had been degraded by the crimes of those who claimed to be Christians. Among the Portuguese traders and colonists all virtue seemed to be extinguished by revenge, ambition, avarice, and debauchery. There was a bishop at Goa, but his threats and exhortations were equally despised.

But this moral darkness was soon dispelled. The great Jesuit addressed the merchants before preaching to the savages. “In the name of God,” he exclaimed, “do you wish me to ask those people, who have no other fault than their blindness, to become like you, who are full of iniquity?”

After spending the morning in assisting and comforting the unfortunate in the prisons and hospitals, he walked through the streets of Goa with a bell in his hand, imploring all masters for the love of God to send their children and slaves to catechism The little ones gathered about him in crowds, and the man of God led them to the church. He began every instruction with the Lord’s prayer, and ended it with the Hail Mary. He taught them the Creed and various practices of devotion, and impressed on their tender minds the beauty of piety and religion.

The modesty and devotion of the youth by degrees changed the aspect of the whole town. The stifled voice of conscience began to be heard once more, and the most abandoned sinners sought the confessional. The Saint preached in public and visited private houses. His kindness and charity were irresistible, and in six months he accomplished the conversion of Goa. It was more than a miracle.

Xavier was soon at Cape Comorin, and entered Paravao by a miracle. A dying woman was cured by the mere touch of his crucifix, and thousands of the natives gathered around him, “listening to his signs,” understanding his unknown language.

He had presaged the magic of the Cross, and he now saw its prodigies. His crucifix preached for him while he was learning the Malabar tongue, and many a day after he had acquired the language, when overcome by fatigue and incessant preaching, he would sound his famous little bell with one hand and raise the image of Christ in the other, and would thus be surrounded with the people of the entire villages, who bent their heads under the saving waters of Baptism

It frequently happened to him – so great was his fatigue – that he could no longer raise his arm to pour the blessed water on the multitudes that came at the close of his rich day’s toil.

The pure heart of the great missionary swam in torrents of joy, and from his lips broke songs of gladness. He endured cold, heat, hunger, disease. On the roads his naked feet were torn by thorns and briars, but he never complained. He enjoyed suffering. He kept on his way, tireless and resolute. On earth he walked as if already in heaven.

His food was merely rice and water. His labors were incredible. It was a rare thing for him to sleep three hours at night, and a rarer thing to use a bed. His couch was the hard ground. Instead of resting at night, he spent the time instructing those who were to be his helpers, and sometimes a sudden stillness would come upon his simple audience. Every one held his breath. A merry, good-natured sign would be made from one to another, as much as to say: “Keep quiet, don’t waken him!”

This was because the “Holy Father,” overcome by fatigue, had closed his eyes in spite of himself; and his sympathizing class – young savages who were learning to be martyrs – lengthened as much as they could the chance moments that relieved their beloved master from his unceasing round of labor.

“The dangers to which I am exposed,’ he writes to Saint Ignatius from the Isle del Moro, “and the pains I take for the interest of God alone, are the inexhaustible springs of my spiritual joy. These islands, bare of all worldly necessaries, are the places in the world for a man to lose his sight with excess of weeping. But they are tears of joy. I never remember to have tasted such interior delights; and these consolations of the soul are so pure, so exquisite, and so constant that they take from me all sense of my bodily suffering.” Truly, to be a saint it is something beautiful!

In our short sketch, we have no space to give even a summary of the wonders that marked the footsteps of Saint Francis Xavier. He worked countless miracles. He raised many dead persons to life. We have room only for one instance. As the great Jesuit was one day preaching at Coulon, a village near Cape Comorin, he saw that his words fell on hearts of stone. He stopped and prayed that God would honor the name of His beloved Son. He then requested some of his obdurate hearers to open the grave of a man who had been buried the day before, near the spot where he preached. The body was beginning to putrefy, and gave forth a most disgusting smell – a fact which the Saint requested the bystanders to observe. He then fell on his knees and commanded the dead person, in the name of Almighty God, to arise. The man arose, and appeared not only living but vigorous and in perfect health. All present were so struck with this wonder that they threw themselves at the Saint’s feet and demanded baptism.

His missions grew with marvellous rapidity. He labored, and God blessed his labors. At the end of two years the crop of helpers that he had planted was almost ripe. At Goa, which was his headquarters, he founded a seminary. His first priests were now ready. To-day he can attempt what seemed impossible yesterday; and now he penetrates still further and further, for he is no longer alone. At one place he baptized ten thousand persons with his own hands in a month.

He establishes the faith at Malacca. He converts two kings in Ceylon. To him a journey of a thousand miles is nothing.

Nor could his zeal be confined by the boundless regions of India. A mysterious finger points to Japan, and he hastens there, accompanied only by three missionaries. It was nine years since he had left Europe, and he had not rested a day.

He learned the language of Japan, and miracles opened the way for the new doctrine. But slow was the progress of truth. The good seed fell on rocks; and even the dauntless Xavier for a moment seemed disconcerted. He regretted having left India. It required all the valor of his resignation to harden himself for a work that seemed impossible.

But where the saints pass, God passes with them The great Apostle redoubled his efforts. Heaven listened to his sighs and tears and prayers, and, after two years of suffering that cost him his life, Xavier was master of Japan.

Will he stop there? No. He will never stop. He changed his route. He turned his eyes towards that great unknown – China. But before entering on this gigantic enterprise, he returned to Goa, where he found that India numbered half a million of Christians. Well might he exclaim: “Glory be to God! this is a fine harvest. Eet us sow in the fields.” And he embarked for China.

But God was pleased to accept his will in this good work, and took him to Himself. He foretold his death. The voyage was a sorrowful one. The Saint labored hard, but at last he was overcome. After suffering great pain he was put ashore, in a dying condition, in a land that was not China. The blessed hero was surrounded by his weeping companions. Tears filled his eyes, he pressed his crucifix to his breast, and, with the light of heaven shining from his countenance, he passed to everlasting glory on 2 December 1552, saying: “In Thee, O Lord! have I hoped; I shall never be confounded.” He was canonized in 1662.

The heroic labors of Saint Francis Xavier in India and Japan were a repetition of the marvellous preaching of the first Apostles of Jesus Christ. His words were powerful. Each of his steps was a victory over the prince of darkness. In the short space of ten years he extended the Gospel over an area of nine thousand square miles, penetrated to regions never reached by the legions of Alexander, saved countless souls, and filled the world with the wonder of his miracles and the sublimity of his apostleship.

MLA Citation

  • John O’Kane Murray, M.A., M.D. “Saint Francis Xavier, S.J., Apostle of the Indies”. Little Lives of the Great Saints, 1879. CatholicSaints.Info. 25 September 2018. Web. 21 November 2018. <>