By Fr Shannon Pereira SJ & Fr Gregory Naik SJ
The feast of St. Francis Xavier is an occasion not only to reflect on the life of St. Francis Xavier but more than that to recall the legacy that this great Saint has left behind. It is for this great heritage that Francis Xavier is still remembered today.
Francis Xavier helped Ignatius of Loyola in the founding of a religious order in the Catholic Church known as the Society of Jesus. This order is popularly known as the Jesuits and was founded in 1540, two years before Francis Xavier arrived in India. Today, the Jesuits are the single largest Religious Congregation of priests and brothers with around 17,637 Jesuits spread all over the world.
The heritage that the Jesuits faithfully handed down from generation to generation is the Spirituality (the Charism) of their own founder St. Ignatius of Loyola. This Ignatian Spirituality is a path for everyday life. It insists that God is present in our world and is active in our lives. One does not have to withdraw from this world in order to find him. One does not have to run away from this world in order to reach for him. In fact, it is He who comes to search for us. One only has to respond to him in the right way. St. Ignatius did not feel that the Lord was calling him to a Monastic Spirituality but that the Spirit of the Lord was leading him into the midst of the world, to go through towns and villages proclaiming the Good News.
The proclamation of the Good News is seen through the many edifying works of the Jesuits. Jesuits have well established schools, colleges, universities and institution of high caliber in India and all around the world. During the latter half of the 20th Century, an extensive network of ‘popular education’ schools were initiated by the Jesuits in the developing countries.
Along with education, social work has taken equal priority. A great contribution of the Jesuits to this world is the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). Its mission is to accompany, to serve and to plead the cause of refugees and forcibly displaced people. The JRS was set up by the Society of Jesus in 1980 and is now working over 50 countries worldwide. JRS works with all refugees but has a particular concern at present for the "forgotten" refugees who have moved out of the media spotlight.
In India, the Jesuits work among the fisher folk, the poor Harijans, among the tribals and the lower castes. There is their legal aid program through the Indian Social institutes, Delhi and Bangalore, throughout the country and similar works in other parts of the country. These reflect their new thrust and their ‘preferential option of the poor’, the oppressed and the world’s most needy.
The Jesuits have a special history in the state of Goa as Francis Xavier first began his work in Goa. Apart from pastoral care, priority was given to education and social works. The Jesuits brought the first printing press to Goa in 1556 and printed the first book in Konkani. There was immense contribution from the Jesuits in all walks of life. Be it in the establishment of colleges or in inculturating the faith, Jesuits were pioneers in these fields.
Today, Jesuits continue to render their services in Goa through their two schools: St. Britto’s High School, Mapusa and Loyola High School, Margao. Research is also carried out in History, Sociology and Konkani in the Xavier Centre of Historical Research and the Thomas Stephens Konknni Kendr, Porvorim. Apart from this, spiritual guidance and a reflection on one’s faith in given to adults and youth through their retreat centers at Pedro Arrupe Institute, Raia, the Youth Formation movement OldGoa and the Xavier Retreat House, Baga.
It is interesting to note that according to some estimates, the largest number of educational institutions around the world is named after St Francis Xavier. The online free encyclopedia Wikipedia, puts it very conservatively at around 140. In Goa itself we have 10-12 (one would expect more!), beginning with a college right down to boardings for school children. The total in the rest of India according to that source is 62 with Maharashtra leading with 14. In the rest of the world there are apparently 66 institutions named after the Saint, mostly of higher education, with 20 in the United States.
This is not surprising given the fact that Francis Xavier himself had earlier dreams of an academic career and the Jesuit Order of which he was a co-founder along with St Ignatius of Loyola and a few others, put "education of children and unlettered persons" as a top priority in their "service of the Lord and of the Church his spouse." Further, on his arrival in Goa in 1542 the Diocesan authorities had requested him to take charge of the newly constructed St Paul’s College, as he was a graduate with MA from the famous University of Sorbonne, Paris.
St Paul’s College, of which now remains only an arch of the chapel façade in Old Goa, was given to the Jesuits (hence called "Paulistas") in 1548. They not only enlarged the building but raised its academic standard to the level of a University with various departments, like Theology, Medicine, etc. On the staff were prominent professors, both Jesuits and laymen who attracted students from all over Asia. The students of Medicine could practice in the Royal Hospital founded by Afonso de Albuquerque soon after the conquest of Goa in 1510. It was handed over to the Paulistas in 1591.
In 1610, following the death of many Jesuits due to a serious epidemic, the College was shifted to a new building close to the present Mater Dei Institute…
The venture came crashing down when the Jesuits were summarily expelled from the Portuguese colonies in 1759 by orders of Dom Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, 1st Marquis of Pombal and Prime Minister of Portugal. The Society of Jesus was later formally suppressed by Pope Clement XIV in 1773. Though it was restored by Pope Pius VII after 41 years in 1814, the internal politics in Portugal did not permit the return of the Jesuits to its colony. They had to await the constitutional reform of another Prime Minister, Dr. Oliveira Salazar in 1933. But when they finally returned to Goa in 1935 they could find only a part of the chapel façade of the original St Paul’s and no traces of the other. They did find, however, the Royal Hospital now located to Panjim (Palacio dos Maquinezes, the Old Medical College) since 1842 after it had been shifted to Panelim for a while.
To speak of Francis Xavier is to keep in mind the legacy that he has left behind. This legacy continues to kindle fire in the hearts of the Goans and people all around the world. Francis Xavier’s work lasted for only 10 years: from 1542 when he arrived in India to 1552 when he died on the Island of Sancian, off the coast of China. However, today, after 500 years he is still remembered. Thousands of people come for his feast and novenas. Still thousands visit the Basilica of Bom Jesus, Old Goa, during the year. It is not only in Goa that Francis Xavier is known. All over the world, as mentioned above, there are schools, colleges, universities and institutions named after Francis Xavier. A number of people are named after Francis Xavier. Thousands of pilgrims flock to Javier, in Spain to visit the castle of Francis Xavier where he was born and baptized. Here lays a question to be reflected and re-reflected – what was so great in Francis?