December 7, 2007

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Saints Francis Xavier and Theodora Guérin move us to share the Gospel with greater zeal

On Dec. 3, we celebrated St. Francis Xavier as the patron of our archdiocese. A year ago, the Holy See named St. Theodora Guérin as our patroness.

Since her canonization in October 2006, we have come to know a great deal more about Mother Theodore. It occurs to me that we do not know much about Francis Xavier, who by the way is patron of the foreign missions alongside St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

In the early 1700s, a military post had been established at Fort Vincennes, a French settlement on the Wabash River. By the middle of that century, a church had been built there by Jesuit missionaries. (Parish records date from 1749.) The Jesuits placed it under the patronage of St. Francis Xavier.

When Bishop Simon Bruté was ordained a bishop on Oct. 28, 1834, and became the first bishop of Vincennes, he placed his primitive cathedral under the patronage of St. Francis Xavier, patron of missionaries. He, in fact, placed the then Diocese of Vincennes under the patronage of Our Lady, “towards whom it was in all ages the spirit of the Church, that all Christians should entertain the most tender devotion.”

By apostolic brief dated March 28, 1898, the title of the diocese was changed to that of the “Diocese of Indianapolis,” with the episcopal see in the city of Indianapolis.

Although the bishop’s official residence was changed, the patron of the diocese by this time was St. Francis Xavier and remained as such. Apparently, this followed from the title of the old cathedral in Vincennes.

What do we know of St. Francis Xavier? I borrow much of the following information from a book titled Saint of the Day edited by Franciscan Father Leonard Foley and published by St. Anthony Messenger Press in 1990.

Francis Xavier was born in Navarre, Spain, in 1506 and died in 1552. He had become a young teacher of philosophy in Paris.

At age 24, Francis faced a promising career in academics with success and a life of prestige and honor before him.

While in Paris, he was confronted by the words of Jesus: “What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and lose his life?” (Mt 16:26).

At first, Francis didn’t pay attention to this Gospel challenge, which had come from a good friend, Ignatius of Loyola. But his friend’s pursuit finally won Francis to Christ.

He made the spiritual exercises under the direction of St. Ignatius and joined the little community that would become known as the Society of Jesus. Together, Ignatius and Francis vowed poverty, chastity and apostolic service at Montmartre in Paris in accord with the direction of Pope Paul III.

Francis was ordained a priest in Venice in 1537. He went on to Lisbon and, from there, sailed to the East Indies. He landed at Goa on the west coast of India. For the next 10 years, he proclaimed the Gospel and evangelized such widely scattered peoples as the Hindus, the Malayans and the Japanese.

Francis deeply impressed the people whom he evangelized and loved because, wherever he went, he lived with the poorest people, sharing their food and their primitive accommodations. He apparently focused his primary attention in ministry to the sick and the poor, ­particularly lepers.

He went through the islands of Malaysia and went on to Japan. Francis must have learned Japanese, at least enough to preach in the language of the people. He baptized them and established missions for those who were to follow him. It is said that he had dreams of going on to China, but he died before reaching the mainland.

Father Leonard records this story in his collection: “Francis died on the island of Sancian, a hundred miles southwest of Hong Kong. In his final sickness, he had to be removed from the ship because the Portuguese sailors feared their kindness to him would offend their master. They were forced to leave him on the sands of the shore, exposed to a bitter wind, but a Portuguese merchant led him into a ramshackle hut. He prayed continually, between spasms of delirium and the doubtful therapy of bleeding. He grew weaker and weaker. ‘I [Anthony, his friend] could see that he was dying, and put a lighted candle in his hand. Then with the name of Jesus on his lips, he gave his spirit to his Creator and Lord with great peace and repose’ ” (p. 322).

When we consider the extraordinary valor of St. Francis Xavier and that of St. Theodora Guérin several centuries later, surely we are moved to evangelize and share the Gospel with greater zeal and generosity. It is important to note that our patrons were able to give up everything and respond to God’s grace because they knew his love in prayer. †

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