IN THE north of Spain, with its burnt sierras and bleached torrent beds, stood the castle of Xavier, and it was here that Francis was born in 1506. His boyhood was tough and happy, and he grew up hard as nails. excelling in athletics. When he was 18, he went to Paris university, It was a violent change. Paris was the most celebrated seat of learning in Europe. Here some 6,000 students from all nations lived, studied, fought. It was the age of Luther, Calvin, Henry VIII. With his great energy of mind and body, Francis made rapid advance in study and sport.
He met Ignatius Loyola, himself a Spanish nobleman, who had come to the university in 1528, middle-aged, limping, unkempt, so poor that he had to earn his keep by cleaning the college. Converted from his wordly aims in a long and painful convalescence, Ignatius was studying for the priesthood.
They were quite different types, and Xavier strongly disliked Ignatius. Gradually however, he changed, and turned to Ignatius for guidance. Xavier, with other students, determined to ' follow Christ in poverty, prayer, penance. Studies over, they offered themselves to the Pope for any work he should choose. On April 7, 1541, Xavier was sent to Portuguese India.
The voyage lasted 13 months. The ship was often becalmed under a burning sun. Water ran short, fever made its appearance. Xavier nursed the sick, gave them the sacraments, buried them. At last, the Indian hills were seen.
He made Goa his head
quarters. Today it has 600,000 inhabitants of whom a third are Catholic. It has a rare beauty, with its tall palm trees, quiet beaches, great valleys and gleaming rice field. Xavier ranged up and down the long west coast, teaching the Faith. He had extraordinary success. Then he went to Ceylon, and struck across the Bay of Bengal to Malacca, 2,000 miles away.
It was a new world, a vast ocean studded with islands and archipelagos, a bewildering variety of peoples, religions, languages. The Paravar pearlfisheries, the head-hunters of Borneo, the cannibalism of Ceram, the Moluccas — he saw it all.
The islands, volcanic with mudfountains, explosions, dust-clouds, should be called, he said, "islands of the hope of God."
It took three years and nine months to get answers from Rome, and Xavier, to whom separation from his friends was anguish, cut out their signatures and wore them, with a copy of the vows he had made to Christ, next to his heart. Thrice shipwrecked, often starving, attacked by Mohammedans, shattered by travelling, he wrote, "Never have I been happier elsewhere, nor more continuously," His cross was the suffering of the natives; both from one another and from the Portuguese who exploited them. "It made," he said, "a permanent bruise on my soul."
In 1541, he went to Japan. He found it a tough experience. The country was in a state of political anarchy. The universities he had hoped to enter to influence the intellectuals, were closed to him. Fresh from the tropics, he was soon in the midst of the arctic Japanese winter. As he trudged along the icy roads, his torn feet left blood-stains in the snow. Yet the Church in Japan was to have a glorious and heroic future. Things improved when he reached Kyoto and Yamaguchi where, as representative of the king of Portugal, he was allowed to preach.
On April 25, 1552, ten years after his arrival in India, he sailed for China, a land closed to foreigners. He was landed from a Portuguese ship on the island of Sancian, at the mouth of the Canton river. He waited there for a Chinese junk whose captain had agreed to put him ashore secretly on the mainland. It never came. "Shall I reach China?" he wrote, "I do not know, Everything is against it."
Xavier fell sick with fever. He was looked after by a Chinese boy who had accompanied him from Goa. We have full details of his last days. He lay in a roughly-made hut, the palm-leaf thatch in fragments. The wind set the little lamp flickering, there was the ceaseless sound of the sea, his crucifix was fastened on the wall, with China, invisible, behind it, The maps were rolled up, the travelling was done with. Bled and re-bled, Xavier became delirious, and reverted to his childhood's language, Basque. The name of Jesus was continually on his lips. With white face and shining eyes, Xavier was clearly dying, and the end came at 2 o'clock in the morning of December 3, 1552. Ile died without priest or sacrament.
The Chinaman, helped by sailors from a Portuguese ship anchored nearby, buried the body in a chest filled with quicklime. Months later, the captain agreed to take the skeleton back to Goa if the quicklime had done its work. The chest was exhumed and the body was found to be fresh and fragrant. An incision was made, and the blood flowed, Xavier lies in the centre of the cathedral at Goa, tiny and terrible in his glass case. He is dressed in Mass vestments, and his hand, like a claw, is visible. His right arm was cut off and taken to Rome. On his feast day, great crowds stream in to venerate the saint whom they call the Lord of Goa.
During the four centuries since his death, Xavier has influenced millions. Fr Martindale wrote, "I leave with you Francis Xavier, Christian, hero — to the end I might say 'schoolboy', despite the worn face and the thick hair gone grey." We celebrate his feast on December 3.