By Fr. Michael Rossmann, SJ
This reflection, along with other Ignatian prayers, poems, reflections and art, first appeared in our free e-book, “Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: Through the Year with Ignatian Spirituality.” Sign up to receive it at jesuits.org/ebook.
There is now in these parts a very large number of persons who have only one reason for not becoming Christian, and that is that there is no one to make them Christians. It often comes into my mind to go round all the Universities of Europe, and especially that of Paris, crying out everywhere like a madman, and saying to all the learned men there whose learning is so much greater than their charity, “Ah! what a multitude of souls is through your fault shut out of heaven and falling into hell!”
-St. Francis Xavier, Letter from India to the Society of Jesus in Rome, 1543
This famous letter from St. Francis Xavier may not stir us in the way it struck its 16th-century readers. Many people today do not spend much time worrying about people falling into hell. Church documents in the last 60 years have reflected an “inclusivist” perspective — seeing Jesus Christ as the Savior, but seeing salvation as still possible for those who are not Christian. Some today may associate missionaries with colonialism and past sins done in the name of Christ. If I ever want to make people feel uncomfortable, a foolproof way is to say that I want to be a missionary.
While we may need to translate St. Francis Xavier’s witness for our contemporary context, we ought to learn from his heroic example. Xavier demonstrated zeal and adaptability in sharing the Gospel in India, Japan and elsewhere in Asia. He endured language barriers and years at sea to baptize a reported 700,000 people. Granted, some experts estimate he baptized “only” 30,000.
A different Jesuit named Francis can help us integrate the example of St. Francis Xavier. Pope Francis writes in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) that he prefers “a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” He continues, “If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life.”
We don’t have to travel around the world to find people who are living without the strength, light and consolation that Pope Francis discusses. They’re right here. Perhaps we, too, are also searching for meaning and a goal in life. Our home, school or office could be our Asia.
Following Xavier’s example might look different for us today, but we can still draw inspiration from this Jesuit saint. We could use a bit more of his zeal and his willingness to be a “madman” for Christ. There are so many today who go without a community of faith to support them. Even if we do not go around the world, we can at least go “out on the streets” to meet them.
Fr. Michael Rossmann, SJ, is a Jesuit of the Midwest Province. He is pursuing a doctorate focused on evangelization at the Gregorian University in Rome.