St. Francis Xavier—the sixteenth-century Jesuit who spread the gospel in India, Indonesia, and Japan—has been called the greatest missionary since St. Paul. This intrepid priest broke new ground and evangelized on a large scale, despite great dangers, deprivations, and hardships.
In only ten years, Francis opened so many doors and led so many people to Christ that it’s easy to forget how simply his story began. Like each of us, he first had to meet Jesus one on one, in the silence of his own heart. And like many of us, he got to that point because someone took the time and trouble to befriend him and lead him to God.
And so, while this is a story about evangelization to the ends of the earth, it is also about the potential of the everyday evangelism that is well within our reach. This is a story about friendship in the Lord.
Winning Ways. It began in 1527 at the University of Paris, where nineteen-year-old Francis de Jassu y Xavier was a promising scholar and athlete. A nobleman from a Navarre family that had fallen on hard times, he was making ends meet by rooming with three other students. One of them was a former military official who had experienced a profound conversion while recuperating from a war injury.
The two men were Basques from the north of present-day Spain, but there the similarity ended. Francis was proud, somewhat wild, and ambitious to get ahead. His roommate—fifteen years older—was intent on loving and serving God and bringing people to him. Francis treated him with derision and ridiculed him for his piety.
But the scorned roommate was none other than Ignatius of Loyola—not a man to be easily daunted. Somehow he saw Francis’ hidden potential and worked hard to win him over as a friend. Tactfully, he found ways to help him out of his serious financial difficulties, especially by drumming up paying students for him to teach. He praised and encouraged Francis and engaged him in conversation. As Francis’ resistance melted away, his heart was opened to the love of Christ.
Ignatius then guided his new friend through an intensive, month-long personal retreat designed to encourage full surrender to God. He used some notes drawn from his own spiritual life—a little book of “spiritual exercises,” which is still bearing great fruit. It was just what Francis needed—a powerful experience of repentance and conversion that decided him to give his life to Jesus.
From that point on, Francis regarded Ignatius with the deepest affection and gratitude. He called him “the father of my soul,” and told a relative, “Never in all my life will I be able to repay the debt I owe him.” Ignatius, too, had gained something: a close friend he would always be able to rely on, someone whose loyalty and affection would never waver.
Band of Brothers. While Ignatius was evangelizing Francis—the “lumpiest dough” he had ever kneaded—he was winning more friends for the Lord. By summer 1534, there were six of them, including his two other roommates. On August 15 of that year, the group vowed to make a radical break from the world and give all their energy, gifts, and love to Christ. They didn’t know it, but they were laying the cornerstone of a religious order that was to spark reform in the church at large.
Francis was ordained a priest with Ignatius in 1537 and was with him in Rome when the pope formally approved the Society of Jesus. But they were not to be together for long.
Ignatius was soon asked to send Jesuits as missionaries to the Portuguese territories in India. When one of his candidates fell ill, he asked Francis to step in. “Good!” replied Francis immediately. “I am here and ready.”
The separation was a sacrifice for the two friends—and as Francis suspected it would be, a very great one. “I believe that in this life we cannot see each other any more except by letters,” he wrote Ignatius in one of his first letters. “To see each other face to face with many embracings—that will be for the other life.”
Imitating Ignatius. Now it was Francis’ turn to befriend others out of love of God. This he did with all his heart, remembering Ignatius’ example and using his own natural gifts for attracting people and building relationships.
The harrowing, yearlong sea voyage from Portugal to India put Francis to the test right away. “The hardships were so severe,” he wrote Ignatius, that except for his desire to obey God’s call, “I would not for a single day have engaged myself in them for the whole world.” During the worst stretch, the ship was stalled for forty days in the doldrums off the Guinea coast, blistering under a relentless sun. The food rotted, the water supply shrank, disease broke out, and people lost hope.
In these nightmarish conditions, Francis reached out to his fellow shipmates in the same spirit that Ignatius had reached out to him. Decades later, people who had sailed with him still remembered the priest in the tattered cassock who tended so patiently to their needs. They still recalled how he took on even the most disgusting tasks with smiling good humor. “He always looked happy, no matter what his sufferings and burdens,” said one.
Indeed, friendliness and cheerfulness were trademark characteristics that would draw people to Francis throughout his missionary life. These two traits “brought the sinners and tough customers spontaneously to his feet,” says one of his biographers. Then, as Ignatius had done, Francis would tell them about Jesus, the friend who could fill their hearts with joy.
Conversations and Conversions. Beginning in 1542 at Goa, on the southwest coast of India, Francis brought the gospel to the tip of India, to Sri Lanka, the Malay peninsula, and the islands near New Guinea—even to areas where the people were reported to be cannibalistic.
In many places, crowds came to hear his sermons and teachings, and long lines formed in front of his confessional. Some days, he performed so many baptisms that his hands became numb and his voice faded. “Send more missionaries.” he begged Ignatius. But especially with the Portuguese merchants and soldiers he encountered, Francis liked the one-on-one evangelistic strategy that Ignatius had used on him.
Many of these colonists were living with concubines; some even kept a harem of female slaves. Francis could have condemned the men outright. Instead, he won them over gradually, inviting himself to dinner and talking easily and knowledgeably about a wide variety of subjects. Only after getting to know them through a few friendly visits would he turn the conversation to spiritual matters, inviting them to consider the state of their souls and change their way of life. Often, he had success.
Letters with a Flair. Through the years, Francis and Ignatius stayed in touch through letters. Writing to Ignatius and the other Jesuit companions in Rome and elsewhere, Francis shared his plans, sought advice, told stories, reported on conversions and challenges, and described the lands and cultures he was encountering.
Warm, expressive, and full of missionary zeal, Francis’ letters shine with love of God and of the people he met. Ignatius found them so interesting that he asked Francis to write some for wider circulation. Those letters—copied, recopied, translated, and printed—kindled great interest in the Jesuits, inspiring many to join and to volunteer for mission work. In one Jesuit’s opinion, Francis’ letters were just as fruitful back home as his evangelizing was abroad!
If Ignatius looked forward to these reports from the mission field, Francis greeted mail from Europe with tears of joy, especially when it contained letters of advice and encouragement from Ignatius. Unfortunately, the mail was often delayed because of wars and the difficulties of sea travel.
“I Read Them with Tears.” This was the case in 1549, when Francis wrote Ignatius of his hopes of preaching Christ in Japan, a new land of culture and refinement, which had only recently been opened up to the Western world. Ignatius wrote back saying he “greatly rejoiced” that Francis had “opened the door for the preaching of the gospel” there. However, it took nearly three years for this precious word of encouragement—or any other communication from Europe—to reach Francis. By then, he had traveled to and from Japan, winning some converts and preparing the ground for Jesuit missionaries to come.
Francis’ return letter to Ignatius shows him setting his missionary gaze on the even more mysterious country of China. It also gives an insight into their friendship, as well as what it cost them to be separated. Francis wrote:
"Among many other holy words and consolations of your letter, I read the concluding ones, “Entirely yours, without power or possibility of ever forgetting you, Ignatio.” I read them with tears, and with tears now write them, remembering the past and the great love which you always bore towards me and still bear. . . . "
"You tell me how greatly you desire to see me before this life closes. God knows the profound impression that those words of great love made on my soul and the many tears they cost me every time I thought of them. . . . "
"[May] God our Lord grant me to experience in this life his most holy will and, having experienced it, the grace to perfectly fulfill it. "
Friends Forever. Francis’ return letter took two years and three months to reach Rome. Ignatius answered right away, calling him back to work in Europe. Finally, the two friends could be reunited.
But it was not to be. Even as Ignatius was writing, the adventurous missionary was in his grave. He had died of fever on December 2, 1552, on a nearly deserted island where he was awaiting a rendezvous with a Chinese trader who could smug-gle him into the country.
Francis died in a lonely hut with only a Chinese boy from Goa to attend him. And yet, viewing the sad scene with the eyes of faith, you could say he was surrounded by friends. Even in his delirium, Francis murmured the name of Jesus, the ever-present Lord and Friend who had filled his life and work with joy. Around his neck and close to his heart, he wore the signatures of his dear friends, the first Jesuits from his University of Paris days. And undoubtedly, as he felt himself nearing death, Francis thought of Ignatius.
“Let us ask God for the grace of seeing each other joined together in the next life,” Francis had once written him. “Whoever will be the first to go to the other life and does not there find his brother, whom he loves in the Lord, must ask Christ our Lord to unite us all there in his glory.”
God must have smiled on his proposal: On the same day in 1622, Francis and Ignatius were both declared saints. Bound together for eternity in mutual love for the God who brought them together, Francis and Ignatius are a powerful witness to the inexhaustible and transforming possibilities of friendship in the Lord.
Louise Perrotta is an editor with The Word Among Us.