I have in my hands a pair of gloves. They belonged to my father. A little over 12 years ago, my father died, and my mother asked me, when we were going through his things, if there was anything of Dad’s that I would like to keep. I indicated to her these gloves, which he often wore, especially on wintry afternoons watching the footy, or when he went to early morning mass. The hands that occupied these gloves, I experienced as forever giving and forever building.
Every morning, just after 5.00 am, Fr Ed [parish priest] and I take Sophia our parish dog for a walk through Whalan Reserve. Here, in Emerton/Mount Druitt, as we know during winter, mornings can be very cold, and during such times, I wear my father’s gloves. Each time I put them on I’m reminded of my father. It is a moving moment. Though separated by time and death, we are nonetheless still connected.
Something similar, but on grander scale, is taking place here this evening; instead of gloves, we have an arm, the right arm of Saint Francis Xavier, Jesuit priest and missionary, who died 460 years ago; and it is through the presence of this arm that we are connected to the most widely traveled missioner in the history of our Church. For twelve years, Francis traveled around Asia, seeking to bring its peoples to know and share in God’s bountiful love. This arm was instrumental in baptizing, it is estimated, over forty thousand people! This arm - now, for us, this relic - connects us to this remarkable man tonight, and more significantly to our God, who was able to accomplish such extraordinary things in and through him.
Those of you who have been here for the veneration and prayer before the relic prior to Mass will, from the video, have Xavier’s story fresh in mind. Those of you who arrived at Mass time, can read his story on the pamphlet provided.
This evening, I’d like to share with you some images and accompanying graces from Francis’ life, which might be relevant for us as fellow travellers, as a pilgrim people on our way to God.
1. Francis was by no means in the beginning what he ended up being at the end of his life. As a young, intelligent, good looking, and accomplished sportsman, with an engaging and charming personality, he was, among his peers and teachers alike, a very popular university student in Paris. A great party-goer and night owl, he lived his life very much in the fast lane. He was ambitious, but his ambition went no further than his wanting to restore the honour and reputation of his family name, which as a boy he saw trashed.
When Ignatius of Loyola entered into his life, over time Francis’ whole outlook began to change. No doubt, Ignatius saw in Francis what he discovered to be true of himself years earlier – a very misguided, worldly young man, proud, ambitious, yet with considerable raw talent and potential. Ignatius’ presence and his persistent and patient questioning of Francis along the lines of “What if a man was to gain the whole world and lose his immortal soul?” in the end, had such an impact, that Francis’ horizons expanded to incorporate God, and he joined Ignatius and at that stage a handful of others to become “Companions in the Lord”. The group would eventually form themselves into the Society of Jesus, or as is more commonly known, the Jesuits. Their mission: to preach God’s word wherever on God’s earth, and to serve charitably wherever there was the greatest need, and especially with and among God’s poor. Francis Xavier, a changed man, took all this very much to heart.
The grace being offered here in this period from Francis’s life is that we can change, if only we allow God, often by working through others, who have our best interests at heart, to reach us. To whom, then, do we really listen? Who do we let into our interior landscape to help us find our true bearings, to help us realize our true desires and potential?
2. As a Jesuit, Francis’ prospects were promising. He was Ignatius’ first secretary, his right-hand-man. Now, the best of friends, together, they could accomplish much for the growing and expanding new order of Jesuits. But when a Jesuit, because of illness, was suddenly unable to be missioned to India, at the request of the powerful King John of Portugal, Ignatius asked Xavier to replace this Jesuit, with only twenty-four hours notice. Francis’ response was instantaneous. “Pues sus! Hemi aqui! he said. Simply: “Okay, I’m ready!” Ignatius and Francis were never to see each other again.
The grace being offered here is one of greater freedom – freedom to respond to the greater need, to trust more deeply in God’s providence and generosity. To what do I cling in my life? What do I hold on to? It might be some material possession or possessions; it might be my reputation – wanting to always be well thought of; it might be a possessive, one-sided relationship. And to what extent does such clinging and holding promote or restrict my freedom, especially in opportunities to serve God and others?
3. Here at Emerton and Mount Druitt, Francis would have been quite at home among the many and varied cultures that compose our parish. When he travelled throughout Asia, he came across many diverse cultures. He came to recognize that an important aspect of evangelisation was a preceding, patient conversation that built rapport and respect, that recognized and acknowledged the true worth and dignity of the other, no matter how foreign that other seemed. He conversed with and learned from Hindus in Goa, from Muslims in present-day Indonesia, and from Buddhists in Japan. Through such conversations, he gradually moved from a European-based Christianity, to a Christianity that was universal, permeating, and reflective of all cultures – a Christianity that reflected the more truly all-embracing face of God. It would be in Japan where this transformation in Francis most evidently would take place, and it was to influence the way Jesuit missionaries would conduct themselves to this day.
The grace here is to appreciate that God’s Spirit blows where it will, that it precedes our efforts, our formulations and procedures, and is present in and through all creation and all peoples. Do we give sufficient space and time to let the Spirit work in us and in others, revealing goodness and truth, fashioning our attitudes and dispositions, expanding our hearts? Do we really listen to others before responding to them? Do we let this happen often where we least expect it?
4. The first companions, the first Jesuits, came from different countries, even from warring nations. But they were united as “Companions and Friends in the Lord”. In Asia, half a world away from his brothers, Francis carried around his neck, in a little leather pouch, the signatures of his companions, which he had torn from their letters written to him. They forever remained close to his heart.
The grace on offer here is to remember and be grateful continually for our friends and our loved ones. And as members of this parish community, we are to extend the Lord’s friendship to one another, and to all with whom we come in contact. We are to pray for them before the Lord. Holy Family has an enviable reputation for welcoming and hospitality. Francis would have delighted in this.
5. Francis traveled with a certain restlessness as he moved from Africa to India, to Malacca, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the southern Philippines, and to Japan. In doing so, he always sought the greater good, the broader, more-lasting influence and outcome. He remained focused in God on his travels, God whom he served loyally and tenaciously through ministering in simplicity to the poor, the persecuted, the sick, the dying, those in mourning, those with responsibilities, and the defenseless. All these were the face of Jesus to him. In keeping with the theology of his time, the energy he invested in travelling so extensively in order to instruct, baptize and preach, was all geared so that those with whom he came in contact, would come to know Jesus and not be lost to this world or the one to come.
Francis, though, was not someone who simply preached and instructed in the faith. His prayer and devotions extended beyond churches and chapels into the world. He was a practical man, a doer who enacted his faith wherever and whenever he came across injustice. “Faith by itself, without works is dead,” says St James [2:17]. Francis worked tirelessly because of his faith. The persecution and subjugation of his fellow human beings, personally witnessed during his boyhood in the occupation of his country, and the changing fortunes of his family, and clearly represented in the slave trading of the time, he abhorred. If he were here today, he would equally abhor some of the injustices we are currently contending with, especially in our treatment of asylum seekers and refugees and the sexual abuse that is within our church and our society.
The grace on offer here is that we are to share our faith, with both enthusiasm and passion, tempered by wisdom; that we are not to be mere hearers of the Word, but also its doers, which means standing in solidarity with those who are outcast, with those who are victims.
6. Francis dreams of reaching and preaching in China. He only makes it to the island of Sancian off the Chinese coast. He is swindled of his last possessions by someone who promises to take him to China but fails to show up on the appointed day. Aged forty-six, he dies on the island, alone, except for one faithful lay catechist who remains with him. Francis would be more honoured and celebrated in his death than in his life – a life which can look on the face of it like failure. Yet, his missionary work opened doors for others. When he left Japan, for example, after working there for two years, he left behind about 1400 new Christians in six towns. By the end of the seventeenth century there were 300,000 Japanese Christians. One of the oldest communities, incidentally, was Nagasaki, which became the largest Christian community right through until 1945 when the city was selected as the target of the atom bomb. It is ironic as it is tragic that the Japanese Christian community was almost annihilated, not by anti-Christian forces but by Christian political leaders. Some time later, the Jesuit Matteo Ricci would cross the threshold into China, where, like Francis before him in so many places, his person, manner and approach would be appreciated and welcomed by the Chinese.
The grace on offer here is to follow our dreams, but to know that our dreams are not always realized, and to know that a giving of one’s life, even in apparent failure, is never the last word. Jesus knew this and it is what Easter is about. Francis’ missionary zeal opened doors for others to follow after him.
From just recalling, then, tonight, a few incidents in his life we can see that God bestowed many graces on Francis Xavier – graces which are available to us as well, if our hearts are open and daring enough to receive them. These graces include: the ability to change and to grow with others’ help, to become freer, to seek and find God present in all things by attending to all things, to extend the hand of friendship to all-comers, to render a faith that does justice, and humbly to allow God a place in the unfolding of our lives.
In the final analysis, Francis Xavier is one who leads from the front, and like John the Baptist, prepares the way of the Lord, and the way for others to follow in the way of the Lord. He is God’s courageous adventurer, dreamer and visionary, who when once drawn by God draws others to share that same God, great distances and hardship notwithstanding. We, in our day, may not be called to go off to foreign and exotic lands, but all of us are called to proclaim and witness to Christ in our lives in the spirit of Francis. As Pope Benedict said to a gathering of Jesuits a few years ago:
Nowadays the new peoples who do not know the Lord or know him badly, so as not to recognize him as the Saviour, are far away not so much from the geographical point of view as from the cultural one. The obstacles challenging the evangelisers are not so much the seas or the long distances as the frontiers that, due to a mistaken or superficial vision of God and of humankind, are raised between faith and human knowledge, faith and modern science, faith and the fight for justice.
Here, in Australia, and with our neighbours, are challenges enough to work on. May we be imbued with the energy, passion, courage and creativity of Francis Xavier to meet these challenges, so that as with him, God’s loving compassion might be known and acted upon by all.
Fr. Brendan Kelly, S.J.
novice and formation director