Saturday, December 03, 2005

Notes on the Feast of St. Francis Xavier.

Today the Church remembers Francis Xavier, a Spanish nobleman who became one of the first Jesuits and served with ingenuity and zeal as a missionary in India, Japan and the Molucca Islands (part of present-day Indonesia). One of the six men who joined Ignatius in making private vows at Montmartre on August 15, 1534 - a date sometimes regarded as the birthdate of the Society of Jesus - Xavier was also part of a more select group I like to call "the first of the First Companions." Enrolling at the Collège Sainte-Barbe in Paris in 1525, Xavier roomed for several years with the Frenchman Pierre Favre; in 1529, the two roommates were joined by a new student from Spain, Iñigo de Loyola. Gathered together seemingly by chance, Ignatius, Xavier and Favre would become perhaps the most fateful trio of roomies in the history of collegiate residence life. Setting sail for Goa not long after the Jesuits won papal approbation in 1540, Xavier enjoyed great success as a missionary in Asia but died without achieving his most ambitious goal - entering China. Even so, Xavier's heroic exploits won widespread admiration in Europe and inspired future generations of Jesuit missionaries - men who would make to China, and to many other places besides.

A lot can be said about Francis Xavier - and a lot will be said about him in the coming months, as the Society of Jesus marks a Jubilee Year commemorating the 500th anniversary of the birth of Xavier and Favre and the 450th anniversary of Ignatius' death. For all the differences between his times and ours, Xavier nonetheless serves as an important model to modern Jesuits as we seek to live out our charism in the modern world. In the words of Decree 2 of GC34, "entry into cultures" and "dialogue with other traditions" are essential elements of the Jesuit mission. Xavier embodied these aspects of our mission perhaps most particularly through his missionary efforts in Japan. Discovering that the strategies that had won thousands of converts in India wouldn't work in Japan, Xavier adapted his approach to match the culture in which he found himself. In doing so, Xavier had to recognize that he had as much to learn from the Japanese he came into contact with as they had to learn from him.

In my own humble way, I believe I've learned a thing or two about "entry into cultures" and "dialogue with other traditions" through my work with refugees in California and Ontario. I've learned a lot from my experiences of serving people whose cultural and religious backgrounds are very different from my own. In listening to them and in accepting their hospitality, I've had the opportunity to experience in a partial way some of the traditional cultures of countries like Afghanistan, Burundi, Somalia and Vietnam. I could write a lot more about this, and perhaps I will in the future. For now, I'll content myself with the thought that by helping people from other parts of the world make a home for themselves in North America I've also helped continue a great Jesuit tradition that began with my brother Francis Xavier. AMDG.


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