Francis Xavier was born at the family castle of Xavier of Basque nobility. His father was Minister of Finance to King John III of Navarre. The family castle is today in possession of the Jesuit order.
In 1525 he went to Paris to study. In 1529 another student, also a Basque, was assigned to room with him. Ignatius Loyola, a former soldier, had undergone a profound religious conversion and was gathering a group of men who shared his ideals. In 1529, Francis was awarded his Master’s degree and went on to teach philosophy at the University of Paris.
In 1534 he and several other young men made vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. He started his studies in theology that same year and was ordained on 24 June 1537. Pope Paul III approved the formation of the order of the Society of Jesus in 1540 and in that same year Ignatius chose Francis as the first Jesuit missionary to the Portuguese East Indies. He left Lisbon with full powers of a Nuncio, together with letters recommending him to the Eastern princes, disembarking in the Portuguese colony of Goa in 1542.
In Goa he catechized adults, educated and catechized children, gathering them by ringing a bell in the streets and visited hospitals and prisons. He ministered to the sick and the children, travelling to Cape Cormorin, on the southeastern coast, to minister to the simple poor pearl fishers, the Parayas. He baptised so many that some nights he could not raise his arm, he was so fatigued. At Travencore, he founded 45 churches in various villages.
He discovered that though some had been baptized many years earlier, they had been never adequately taught their faith or been given pastoral care – in effect they had been ignored and left to fend for themselves spiritually. He was also appalled and embarrassed by the behaviour of the Portuguese there – many of them adventurers fleeing arrest or mistakes in their lives. Some came to Goa to make money at whatever cost to the local people or to exploit conditions they found there.
Father Xavier travelled tirelessly from village to village, teaching the faith and administering to their physical needs. He travelled from Goa to India, Malacca in Malaya and the Philippines, his evident goodness overcoming any difficulties of communication. He had enormous numbers of conversions, baptizing 10,000 Macuans in the last months of 1544.
On the feast of the Assumption 1549, Father Xavier, with fellow Jesuit priests Cosme de Torres and Juan Fernandez, arrived in Kagoshima, Japan. In September of that year, Father Xavier visited the Daimyo of Kagoshima, asking permission to build a Catholic mission in Japan. The Daimyo agreed in the hope of creating a trade relationship with Europe. The Shogunate and imperial government initially supported the Catholic mission and missionaries, thinking they would reduce the influence of the Buddhist monks and help trade with Spain and Portugal. He taught himself the language and preached so eloquently and with such obvious goodness that those who came in contact with him retained the fervour of their conversion many years later. Father Xavier wrote to the Jesuit headquarters in Rome, describing the Japanese as a highly cultured people who, once intellectually convinced of the soundness of Catholic doctrine, would become fervent and devout Christians. They were concerned with the doctrinal logic of the faith, demanding intellectually rigorous answers to their queries and, once convinced, were capable of unwavering loyalty.
Farther de Torres too, described the intellectual rigour and curiosity of the Japanese in a letter in September 1551, saying “Those [Jesuits] who come to these regions must be very learned in order to answer the very deep and difficult questions which they [the citizens] ask from morning till night. They are very insistent in their questions. From the day on which Padre Maestre Francisco came into this city, which is now some five months or more ago, there has never been a day on which there were not priests and laymen here from morning until late at night in order to ask all kinds of questions.”
Father de Torres also wrote of his success in converting the Japanese in Yamaguchi: “When they [the Japanese Christian converts] once accepted the faith, there are, from what I have seen and heard, and from what I have experienced with them, no people in the world so tenacious. It seems to me that the majority of those who have become Christians, and of those there are many, are ready to endure any calamity for the love of God.”
They baptized many thousands of Japanese, working selflessly to assist the local population whose lives had been devastated by the constant warfare of the Sengoku period. Father de Torres gave up his inheritance to buy food for the starving people, regardless of their religion, whether they were Christian or Buddhist.
Father Xavier departed Japan in 1551, returning to Goa briefly with a view to going to China, where he had been petitioned to meet with the Chinese Emperor. He had evangelised successfully in Japan, Malaya, the Philippines, Borneo and India. However, he never reached China, dying of fever on Shanchuan Island.
He is considered the greatest missionary since St Paul, the Apostle. In 1927, Pope Pius XI published the decree “Apostolicorum in Missionibus” naming Francis Xavier and St Therese of Lisieux the patrons of all foreign missions. He is the patron saint of Navarre and the Day of Navarre in Spain is a massive celebration marking the anniversary of the death of St Francis. He is also the Patron of Australia, together with Our Lady Help of Christians and St Mary of the Cross.