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.