“Go ye therefore, and teach all nations,” Jesus instructs in the penultimate verse of St Matthew’s Gospel. No one ever carried out this injunction with more courage and determination than Francis Xavier (1506-52). He was not only one of the greatest missionaries, but also one of the most remarkable travellers in history.
His letters, 137 of which have survived, show a man who combined the highest ideals with practical efficiency, and who tempered the rigours of faith with unfailing charity and humanity. Living in the first years of European colonialism, he criticised the cruelties and corruptions of power with an acuity centuries in advance of his time.
The youngest of a large family, Francis was born in his mother’s castle at Xavier, to the south of the Pyrennees. At 18 he went to study in Paris, where he met Ignatius Loyola, and in 1534 became one of the founding members of the Society of Jesus. Ordained in Venice in 1537, he spent two years in Rome with Loyola, who sent him to preach in the East.
First, Francis proceeded to Portugal, the colonial power in India, and met King John III, through whose auspices he received from the Pope the grand title of Apostolic Nuncio to the Indies. Francis, however, refused to employ a servant: “the best means of acquiring true dignity,” he considered, “is to wash one’s own clothes and boil one’s own pot.”
After a voyage of 13 months (twice as long as usual due to a winter sojourn in Mozambique), Francis arrived in Goa in May 1542. He soon understood that the hope of converting Indians was undermined by the greedy, debauched and vicious conduct of the Christian colonialists. “Experience has taught me,” he would write to John III, “that your Highness has no power in India to spread the faith of Christ, while you have power to take away and enjoy all the country’s material riches.”
Nevertheless, Francis achieved great success among the Paravas, a Tamil people in southern India and Ceylon. Though never much of a linguist (his first language was Basque), he managed to pick up scraps of native dialect and to teach Christianity in jingles.
In his mind all men weighed equally in the scales of natural justice. “Would the Portuguese be pleased,” he demanded when an Indian was abducted, “if one of the Hindus were to take a Portuguese by force and carry him up country?”
Francis went on to preach on the Malay peninsula (1545-47) and in Japan (1549-51), where he made some 2,000 converts. He was on his way to China when he died on the island
of Shangchuan, some 100 miles west of Hong Kong. His body was returned to Goa for burial.