St. Francis Xavier (Indonesia, c. 16th century)
December 3 is the feast of Saint Francis Xavier. Francis is the patron of foreign missions because of his evangelization in India, Indonesia, and Japan (he died off the coast of China, and the site is a pilgrimage destination for Chinese Catholics). Many Asian Catholics to this day recognize Francis as a patron; many priests take his name.
Francis is perhaps the most striking example of what Ignatius’ disciple Jerónimo Nadal described as the place for the ministry of the nascent Jesuit order. In contrast to the cloisters of the monastic orders, he suggested that “the world is our house.” Francis’ life after college with Ignatius (Francis was the athlete; Ignatius was like the older brother figure to him) was a passionate commitment to spread the gospel to those places that had not yet heard it.
In recent years, there is greater attention to the question of whether Francis’ ministry was compromised by his reliance on Portuguese expansion into Asia– economic exploitation, colonialism, racism, and so on. During the 500th anniversary of his birth, I visited the castle at Javier, in Navarre, Spain, where there was a remarkable exhibit of artwork depicting Francis. The exhibit examined how depictions of Xavier perpetuated stereotypes of the European noble and the darker skinned, uncivilized foreigners. They are deeply troubling images, in some cases.
Yet what is most remarkable about Xavier today is that in the very lands where he preached, there is great devotion to his memory. India, Japan, Indonesia, and China all have communities that remember him with great veneration. In this age of great awareness of cultural difference, Xavier remains a remarkable figure– a reminder that authentically preaching the gospel is not a violation of culture, but an appreciation of it.