The Harvest is Great, but the Laborers are Few: St. Francis Xavier’s Lament

This is from Saturday’s Office of Readings, and it’s two excerpts from letters written by St. Francis Xavier to St. Ignatius Loyola.  Xavier and Ignatius are the sixteenth-century co-founders of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, and they were incredibly effective missionaries, travelling the world to spread the Gospel.  They’re directly and indirectly responsible for more conversions to Catholicism than perhaps anyone in the modern world.

At the time St. Francis Xavier writes the below letters, it’s the mid-1540s, and he’s in India, converting innumerable souls to Christ.  His lament is essentially that “The harvest is great, but the laborers are few” (Matthew 9:37), and that there are too many comfortable Christians unwilling to do anything to spread the Gospel:

St. Ignatius of Loyola (left) and St. Francis Xavier

We have visited the villages of the new converts who accepted the Christian religion a few years ago. No Portuguese live here—the country is so utterly barren and poor. The native Christians have no priests. They know only that they are Christians. There is nobody to say Mass for them; nobody to teach them the Creed, the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the Commandments of God’s Law.

I have not stopped since the day I arrived. I conscientiously made the rounds of the villages. I bathed in the sacred waters all the children who had not yet been baptized. This means that I have purified a very large number of children so young that, as the saying goes, they could not tell their right hand from their left. The older children would not let me say my Office or eat or sleep until I taught them one prayer or another. Then I began to understand: The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.

I could not refuse so devout a request without failing in devotion myself. I taught them, first the confession of faith in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, then the Apostles’ Creed, the Our Father and Hail Mary. I noticed among them persons of great intelligence. If only someone could educate them in the Christian way of life, I have no doubt that they would make excellent Christians.

Many, many people hereabouts are not becoming Christians for one reason only: there is nobody to make them Christians. Again and again I have thought of going round the universities of Europe, especially Paris, and everywhere crying out like a madman, riveting the attention of those with more learning than charity: “What a tragedy: how many souls are being shut out of heaven and falling into hell, thanks to you!”

I wish they would work as hard at this as they do at their books, and so settle their account with God for their learning and the talents entrusted to them. 

This thought would certainly stir most of them to meditate on spiritual realities, to listen actively to what God is saying to them. They would forget their own desires, their human affairs, and give themselves over entirely to God’s will and his choice. They would cry out with all their heart: Lord, I am here! What do you want me to do? Send me anywhere you like—even to India.

Even to India, indeed. Here’s a map showing St. Francis Xavier’s missionary journeys:

For the most part, he was going to places where Christianity had never even been heard of, and great miracles accompanied him.  There are accounts of him speaking in tongues (for example, preaching the Gospel in Chinese, before learning to speak Chinese).  Innumerable Christians living today, particularly in Asia and Oceania, owe their salvation, in some part, to the work of St. Francis Xavier.

Francis’ lament was simply that so many more were qualified and capable of preaching the Gospel, but cared for books more than souls.  As Christians, let it never be said of us, “What a tragedy: how many souls are being shut out of heaven and falling into hell, thanks to you!”  Finally, Christ says (Mt. 9:37-38), “The harvest is great but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”  Pray for vocations, and pray that God raises up more Christians like St .Francis Xavier to proclaim His holy Gospel throughout the world.


  1. agreed, this is one of my favorite posts that you’ve ever done Joe…

    honestly, it tells truly of our duties as Catholics (think each of the 4 marks) and just how much more we should be doing….

    One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic…

    The Catholic portion requires a great zeal and active participation with His will, not ours. May we think of this as we prepare to celebrate His birth.

    In Christ

  2. I originally didn’t like this post until I realized I didn’t like it because A) it didn’t have our normal esoteric fare and B) it was a call to pay less attention to the esoteric, and more attention to those who need the Gospel.

  3. Sn. Francisco Javier (as he is known in Spanish) is the Patron Saint of Magdalena de Kino, a town that is 188 Km. away from my home town of Hermosillo, in Mexico. Every year people walk from Hermosillo and other, further away cities, in pilgrimage to Magdalena to conmemorate his birthday.

    This is not an easy pilgrimage, it takes several days of walking through 120 F weather and around freezing at night, but people do it because of the tremendous faith they have in his intercession. My own grandmother use to say short prayers to him him throughout the day.

    His lament is still very valid today and it should always resound in our minds while we go through our every day tasks. We are not all called to be missionaries like him, however, nowadays most everywhere is mission land. Think of Europe, some parts of this country, our own cities, our offices, classrooms, maybe even homes and it’s easy to see how we can all listent to his call, take up his challenge, and do our part for the increase of the Kingdom of God.

    Thank you very much for the post, Joe. You know how much love, respect and gratitude I have for all the Jesuits. Especially St. Francis and St. Ingatius.

  4. Joe, I know. Ironically, I left the Catholic church in 1985 through the ministry of a now ex-jesuit priest.

    It’s only very recently that I have begun to reassess the claims of Catholicism as I look at what private interpretation of Scripture has done to Protestantism and more closely to home, my family.

    Your blog and Ignatian Insight have been very helpful in that regard. One of these days when I’m ready I’d like to meet. I’m in the N. VA area


  5. Oh yeah, in two days we celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception, my parish in Bombay where I served the church for almost 10 years as altar boy and later as a reader at daily mass, choir director and youth leader.

    That parish is one of the biggest in Bombay today. So many of us, committed Catholics who had an encounter with God that spring eventually left because in our pride we believed we heard the voice of the Holy Spirit and understood the Scriptures better than the Church that had raised us.

    Sorry to go on like this.


  6. Dan,

    Glad I could be of help. Keep that priest and those other Christians in your prayer. God is merciful.

    I’m thrilled that I could be of some assistance, and I’d love to meet up some time. It looks like I live about an hour and a half from where you live, and about 70 minutes from where you work.



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