Xavier, Francis SJ

1506 - 1552
Missionary and co-founder of Society of Jesus
Roman Catholic

Francis Xavier was born in the Castle of Xavier, in the Kingdom of Navarre, on April 7, 1506 into an influential noble family. He was the youngest son of Don Juan de Jasso y Atondo, Lord of Idocín, president of the Royal Council of the Kingdom of Navarre and Doña María de Azpilcueta, sole heiress to the Castle of Xavier.

Basque[1] and Romance[2] were his two mother tongues (the Kingdom of Navarre, known as the Kingdom of Pamplona until the second half of the 12th century, was a Basque kingdom occupying land on both sides of the western Pyrenees.)

In 1512, Ferdinand, King of Aragon and regent of Castile, invaded Navarre, initiating a war that lasted over 18 years and reversing the fortunes of the family. Three years later, Francis' father died when Francis was only nine years old.

Early life

Francis grew up at Xavier, in an atmosphere of austere Catholic piety created by Dona Maria and Don Juan. In 1525, he journeyed to Paris and  began his studies at the College Sainte-Barbe, University of Paris.[3] In the early days, he acquired a reputation as an athlete and a high-jumper.[4]

In 1529, Ignatius of Loyola, another Basque student, was assigned to room with Francis and Pierre Favre. At 38, Ignatius had a colourful past as a soldier and a dramatic conversion experience. He was much older than the duo who were in their twenties, and played a role of a spiritual mentor to both. Francis resisted Ignatius’s appeal to join the clergy, but Pierre responded. The story goes that when Pierre left to visit his family and Francis was alone with Ignatius, he finally relented.

In 1530, Francis received the degree of Master of Arts and afterwards, taught Aristotelian philosophy at the College of Dormans-Beauvais, University of Paris.[5] On August 15, 1534, seven students including Francis met in a crypt beneath the Church of St. Pierre de Montmarte overlooking Paris. Led by Ignatius, they took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to the Pope. Francis began his study of theology in 1534 and was ordained on June 24, 1537 in Venice.[6] In 1539, Ignatius drew up the founding principles for a new religious order, the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), and Pope Paul III approved his plans in 1540.

Meanwhile, the Portuguese had set up colonies in India, after Vasco da Gama’s fateful arrival on the West Coast in 1498. King John III of Portugal was concerned about the eroding spiritual life and values of the Portuguese settlers in India (Goa). The king asked Pedro Mascarenhas, Portuguese ambassador to the Holy See, to request for missionaries to be sent to the colonies. John III was encouraged by Diogo de Gouveia, rector of the Collège Sainte-Barbe, to recruit the newly graduated students who had established the Society of Jesus, to instruct the settlers.

Ignatius promptly appointed Nicholas Bobadilla and Simão Rodrigues. At the last moment, Bobadilla became seriously ill. With some hesitance and uneasiness, Ignatius asked Francis, who is referred to as "half of Ignatius’s soul",[7] to go in Bobadilla's place. Thus, Francis Xavier began his life as the first Jesuit missionary almost accidentally.

Francis Xavier left Lisbon on April 7, 1541, his 35th birthday, along with two other Jesuits and the new viceroy Martin Afonso de Sousa, on board the Santiago.[8] As he departed, Francis was given a brief from the pope appointing him apostolic nuncio to the East.[9] Francis the "Shepherd" soon discovered the sorry state of the church and its congregants in Goa. His mornings were spent in caring and comforting the distressed in hospitals and prisons. After that, he walked through the streets ringing a bell to summon the children and servants to catechism.

Francis’ gentleness, behaviour and deep concern for souls won him much respect. To impress upon simple folk, he set doctrines to rhyme and popular tunes, and these songs became part of daily routine, often being sung in fields, streets, and homes.

His pastoral heart was drawn to the community of pearl-fishers, called Paravars, who inhabited the coast from Cape Comorin to the island of Mannar off Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). From 1527, the Paravars faced threats from Arab fleets offshore and also from an onshore campaign of the Rajah of Madura to gain control of the coast from the Rajah of Travancore.[10] In return for protection from these threats on land and at sea, their leader Vikramaditya Pandiyan sought the help of the Portuguese, who asked for their political and religious allegiance in return. In 1532, led by Pandiyan, about 20,000 Paravars were baptised and became subjects of Portugal. In the absence of any catechistic instruction, the Paravars continued to worship syncretically, incorporating their old deities into their new faith.

Xavier visited them in October of 1542. He translated the catechism to Tamil and also appointed catechists for the community. It is recorded that Xavier also baptised more than 15,000 from this community during his stay here. A very fruitful three years of preaching to the people of southern India and Ceylon followed, with many converted. He built nearly 40 churches along the coast.

Some of the Portuguese protectors themselves were involved in duplicitous dealings or simply took advantage of the mayhem caused by the fight between the rajahs to make personal gains. Xavier intervened on several occasions in an attempt to right these wrongs. Distressed by the behaviour of the Portuguese, Xavier wrote to King John III, in 1546 proposing the establishment of a Goan Inquisition.[11]The inquisition was established by law in Portugal and Francis, in his puritanical zeal, sought the same for the colony of Goa.

Present-day detractors in India, quoting fictitious sources, portray Francis Xavier as vicious and cruel, seeking to convert Hindus by torture and at the "point of the sword".[12] Xavier did have a passion for integrity of practice in religion and the use of civil authority to further the cause. But his contention was directed primarily to the loose-living Portuguese settlers and then, to those who had chosen to follow Catholicism. Xavier wrote again to King John III in 1548, with a request to hold the Portuguese governor responsible for spreading the gospel.[13] In any case, the Inquisition in Goa and associated trials for which he is singularly blamed came in as an ordinance only in 1567, about 15 years after his death.

Southeast Asia

Around August 1545, news of opportunities for Christianity attracted Francis Xavier to the Malay Archipelago (present-day Peninsular Malaysia). The mixed population of the Portuguese centre of commerce in Malacca was receptive to the gospel. Xavier established missions among the Malays and the headhunters found in the Spice Islands (Moluccas, present-day Indonesia), in the Portuguese settlements by January 1546.[14]

After Easter 1547, he returned to Malacca. While there, Malacca was attacked by the Acehnese[15] from Sumatra. In a manner characteristic of the prophets of the Old Testament, Xavier inspired the Portuguese to seek battle, achieving a victory at the Battle of Perlis River, despite being heavily outnumbered.[16]


In December of 1547, while at Malacca, Francis Xavier met a Japanese fugitive, Anjiro. Anjiro became a Christian and kindled Francis’ interest in visiting Japan.[17] Francis struggled to learn Japanese. In March 1551, the daimyo of Yamaguchi gave him permission to preach. Discovering that evangelical poverty did not have the appeal in Japan that it had in Europe and India, he decided to change his approach. Handsomely dressed, with his companions acting as attendants, he presented himself before Oshindono, the ruler of Nagate, and as a representative of the great kingdom of Portugal, offered him letters and presents: a musical instrument, a watch, and other attractive objects.[18]

The Japanese people were not easily converted; many of the people were Buddhist or Shinto. Francis tried to combat the view held by some Japanese that a God who had created everything, including evil, could not be good. With the passage of time, his sojourn in Japan could be considered somewhat fruitful as attested by congregations established in Hirado, Yamaguchi, and Bungo. After two years Francis decided to return to India.


During his trip from Japan back to India, a tempest forced him to stop on an island near Guangzhou, Guangdong, where he met Diogo Pereira, a rich merchant and an old friend from Cochin. Pereira showed him a letter from Portuguese prisoners in Guangzhou, asking for a Portuguese ambassador to speak to the Chinese Emperor on their behalf.

On April 25, 1552 [19], Xavier set sail from Goa for China with Diogo Pereira and few other companions including a Jesuit student, Alvaro Ferreira and a Chinese servant, Antonio on the Santa Cruz. Xavier had persuaded the viceroy to appoint Pereira as the Portuguese envoy to China. As China was closed to foreigners, the plan was made with the Portuguese governor of Malacca, Don Pedro D’Silva a friend of Xavier’s to send a diplomatic mission, as per instructions from the Viceroy of India.

En-route at Malacca, a contagious fever was raging. Francis Xavier and his companions helped in relief work and carried the sick to hospitals. After the plague subsided Xavier sought permission from Don Álvaro de Ataíde who had by now succeeded his brother D’Silva as governor, for him and his companions to continue the journey.

Some records [20]cite that Xavier had forgotten to carry his apostolic appointment letters. De Ataíde who carried a grudge against Pereira capitalized on this lack of credentials, and did not recognize Pereira’s appointment. The governor prevented Pereira from journeying further. He also confiscated the gifts that the party was carrying for the Chinese Emperor.

Xavier persisted despite the failed diplomatic mission. In late August, the Santa Cruz reached the Chinese island of Shangchuan, Taishan, in Guangdong. As permission to travel onward was delayed, Xavier sent back his travelling companion, Álvaro Ferreira, and remained with António, a Chinese servant. He died from a fever at Shangchuan, Taishan, on December 3, 1552, while waiting for a boat that would take him to mainland China.[21] In his last moments of feverish delirium, he was heard muttering snatches of the Basque prayers he learnt at his mother’s knee.[22]         

Xavier was first buried on a beach at Shangchuan Island. His body was taken from the island in February 1553 and temporarily buried at St. Paul's Church in Portuguese Malacca on March 22, 1553. Pereira came back from Goa, and removed the relics shortly after April 15, 1553. On December 11, 1553, Xavier's body was shipped to Goa.[23] In 1614, by order of the church, his right arm credited with baptising thousands was severed at the elbow and brought to Rome, where it rests in a place of pride at the Gesù Church in Rome.[24]

Francis Xavier’s remains at the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Goa, sealed in a glass container encased in a silver casket on December 2, 1637. The casket which sits high above the altar is lowered for public viewing at a decennial interval, announced well in advance. A season of pilgrimage in Goa, the ceremony sees a sea of worshippers, many walking in an act of piety for hundreds of kilometres from neighbouring Indian states to pay homage. The next viewing has been announced by the archdiocese of Goa for November 2024.[25]

Francis Xavier’s missionary endeavours is considered second only to the Apostle Paul's, and The Society of Jesuits has earned a formidable reputation for education, beginning with the St. Paul’s college that Francis Xavier founded in 1542 in Goa. Recent records credit the society with 118 primary and middle schools, 149 high schools, 58 university colleges, 22 technical institutes and 16 business schools under its aegis, with 11,525 teachers educating 3,34,538 students from every social class, community and linguistic group.[26]

Even before his death, Francis Xavier was considered a saint and he was formally venerated by the Catholic church in 1622. In 1927, he was named patron of all missions.[27]


  1. ^ Basque is a language spoken by Basques and others of the Basque Country, a region that straddles the westernmost Pyrenees in adjacent parts of northern Spain and southwestern France.
  2. ^ 2. Navarro-Aragonese, called Romance at this time, was a language spoken in the surrounding area.
  3. ^ Brodrick, James, Saint Francis Xavier (1506–1552) (Burns, Oates & Washbourne Ltd; 1952), 26, Saint Francis Xavier, 1506-1552 : Brodrick, James, 1891-1973 : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive
  4. ^ Brodrick, Saint Francis Xavier, 33.
  5. ^ Brodrick, Saint Francis Xavier, 42.
  6. ^ “Saint Francis Xavier Apostle of the Indies and Japan -1506-1552,” accessed October 1, 2023, St. Francis Xavier (archive.org).
  7. ^ Brodrick, Saint Francis Xavier, 77.
  8. ^ Brodrick, Saint Francis Xavier, 100.
  9. ^ Friar Jack Wintz, “St.Francis Xavier (1506-1552) Great Missionary to the Orient,” American Catholic, 2006,  accessed October 1, 2023, https://web.archive.org/web/20160304051732/http://www.americancatholic.org/e-News/FriarJack/fj112906.asp.
  10. ^ “Paravar,” accessed October 1, 2023, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paravar.
  11. ^ Neill, Stephen,  A History of Christianity in India: The Beginnings to AD 1707 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984),160.
  12. ^ Anjali Sharma, “Goa Inquisition,” The Indian Express , September 3,2015, accessed October 1, 2023, Goa Inquisition- The New Indian Express.
  13. ^ Neill, Stephen, A History of Christianity in India,160.
  14. ^ Robert L Bireley, “St. Francis Xavier,” Encyclopedia Britannica (1998), accessed October 2, 2023, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Francis-Xavier.
  15. ^ The Kingdom of Aceh Darussalam was a sultanate centered in the modern-day Indonesian province of Aceh. It was a major regional power in the 16th and 17th centuries.
  16. ^ “Francis Xavier,” accessed October 1, 2023, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Xavier.
  17. ^ Antonio Astrain, “Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), St. Francis Xavier”, accessed October 2, 2023, Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/St. Francis Xavier - Wikisource, the free online library.
  18. ^ ”Saint Francis Xavier Apostle of the Indies and Japan -1506-1552”, accessed October 2,2023, http://www.ewtn.com/library/MARY/XAVIER2.htm.
  19. ^ "Saint Francis Xavier, Apostle of the Indies and Japan", accessed October 23, 2023, https://www.ewtn.com/catholicism/library/saint-francis-xavier-apostle-of-the-indies-and-japan-5945
  20. ^ Dokras, Uday, “Saint Francis Xavier- Adventurer & Saint”, Indo Nordic Author's Collective, 2021, 5, accessed October 23, 2023, https://www.academia.edu/45591715/Saint_Francis_Xavier_Adventurer_and_Saint
  21. ^ Robert L Bireley, “St. Francis Xavier,” Encyclopedia Britannica (1998), accessed October 2, 2023, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Francis-Xavier.
  22. ^ Brodrick, Saint Francis Xavier, 20.
  23. ^ Francis Xavier, Wikipedia, accessed October 2, 2023, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Xavier#CITEREFAstrain1909.
  24. ^ “Find out Where the Other Arm of St. Francis Xavier is Located,” accessed October 2, 2023, https://catholic-link.org/find-out-where-the-other-arm-of-st-francis-xavier-is-located/.
  25. ^ Michael Gonzalves, “Goa announces next Francis Xavier exposition,” accessed October 2, 2013,  https://www.ucanews.com/news/goa-announces-next-francis-xavier-exposition/99355.
  26. ^ ”Jesuits and Education,” accessed October 2, 2023, https://www.sxcran.org/Jesuits#:~:text=These%20Jesuit%20Educational%20Institutions%20engage,16%20Business%20Administrations%20Institutes%20with.
  27. ^ Robert L Bireley, “St. Francis Xavier,” Encyclopedia Britannica (1998).

Philip Malayil

The writer is the coordinator for the South Asia region for DCBAsia.org.


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Bireley, Robert L. “St. Francis Xavier.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Published in 1998. Accessed October 2, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Francis-Xavier.

Brodrick, James. Saint Francis Xavier (1506–1552). New York: Burns, Oates & Washbourne Ltd, 1952.

Coleridge, H. T. “Life and Letters of St. Francis Xavier.” 1872. Accessed October 1, 2023. https://web.archive.org/web/20150907230956/http:/www.ewtn.com/library/M….

Dokras, Uday. “Saint Francis Xavier- Adventurer & Saint.” Indo Nordic Author's Collective, 2021.

“Find out Where the Other Arm of St. Francis Xavier is Located.” Accessed October 2, 2023. https://catholic-link.org/find-out-where-the-other-arm-of-st-francis-xa….

“Francis Xavier.” Accessed October 2, 2013. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Xavier#CITEREFAstrain1909.

Gonzalves, Michael. “Goa announces next Francis Xavier exposition.” Union of Catholic Asian News. Accessed October 2, 2023. https://www.ucanews.com/news/goa-announces-next-francis-xavier-expositi….

Neill, Stephen. A History of Christianity in India: The Beginnings to AD 1707. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

“Paravar”. Accessed October 2, 2023.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paravar.

Sharma, Anjali. “Goa Inquisition.” Indian Express, September 3, 2015. Accessed October 1, 2023.https://www.newindianexpress.com/cities/bengaluru/2015/sep/03/goa-inqui….

"St.Francis Xavier, Apostle of the Indies and Japan". Accessed October 23, 2023. https://www.ewtn.com/catholicism/library/saint-francis-xavier-apostle-o….

Wintz, Friar Jack. “St.Francis Xavier (1506-1552) Great Missionary to the Orient.” Accessed October 1, 2023. http://www.americancatholic.org/e-News/FriarJack/fj112906.asp.