In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section St. Francis Xavier

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Missiology: Xavier and Early Jesuit Missions
  • Missions in India and Indonesia (East Indies)
  • Missions in Japan and East Asia (Far East)

Renaissance and Reformation St. Francis Xavier
Robert Scully
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0351


St. Francis Xavier (Francisco de Jasso y Javier) (b. 1506–d. 1552) was one of the most influential missionaries in the history of Christianity and became known as the “Apostle of the Indies and Japan.” He was born into the Spanish Basque nobility at the family’s ancestral castle in Navarre. His family was caught up in the struggle between the Spanish and French Crowns over control of Navarre, and the Xavier family suffered from its support of the losing (French) side. In 1525 Francis went to the University of Paris, where he spent the next eleven years studying philosophy and theology as well as teaching. One of his roommates was Ignatius of Loyola, also from a Basque noble family, but who, at least initially, was far too pious for Francis. Eventually, however, Xavier succumbed to his countryman’s charisma and spiritual vision. Several other students joined this group of “friends in the Lord,” and on 15 August 1534 at Montmartre these seven companions took vows of poverty and chastity, as well as planned a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. By 1537 they gathered in Venice, but when warfare thwarted their plans, they made their way to Rome and put themselves at the service of the Catholic Church and the papacy. Pope Paul III formally approved the Society of Jesus in September 1540. In the meantime, King John III of Portugal had requested some Jesuits to minister to his subjects in the expansive Portuguese Empire in Asia. Xavier arrived in Lisbon and ministered there before finally setting sail on 7 April 1541, his thirty-fifth birthday. After a winter’s layover in Mozambique, he arrived in Goa in May 1542. He spent the next several years working among both the Portuguese settlers and the native peoples of southern India. Contrary to legend, he did not have the gift of tongues and used music, images, and interpreters to teach, heal, and baptize as many as possible. In 1545 he arrived in Malacca and spent several years evangelizing across much of the East Indies. Having heard of Japan, Xavier arrived there in August 1549 with a Japanese convert and companion, Anjiro. After limited initial success, Xavier made some changes with respect to local customs. This anticipated the long-term Jesuit missionary strategy of cultural accommodation (inculturation). Xavier left Japan in late 1551 and returned to Goa to resolve pressing administrative issues. Intrigued that the Japanese and others looked to China as a cultural beacon, he arrived at the island of Shangchuan, just off the coast, in August 1552. Unable to gain entrance to the Chinese mainland, he died in the early morning hours of 3 December 1552. A burgeoning cult led to his canonization in 1622.

General Overviews

Due to its breadth, this general overview is divided into three subsections covering in turn: the Early Modern Iberian Context, Early Modern Catholicism, and the Early Society of Jesus. Regarding the first, Xavier was from the Basque Country of northern Iberia, specifically Navarre, which in his youth was annexed to Spain. In addition to his Spanish connections, Xavier eventually sailed to the Indies in the service of the king of Portugal—as well as that of the Catholic Church and his own religious order. Therefore, the histories of Spain and Portugal in their “Golden Age” during the 16th century provide an important context to Xavier’s life and missions. This period also witnessed fundamental changes in Western Christianity, as the Reformation(s) fractured as well as revitalized Christianity, both Protestantism and Catholicism. Early modern Catholicism constituted a complex response to contemporary challenges and opportunities. In addition to the Council of Trent, the Inquisition, and numerous other institutions and mechanisms of renewal and repression, many new and reformed religious orders, of both men and women, arose to address the spiritual aspirations and needs of the time. Particularly influential in terms of its spirituality, ministries, and rapid growth, the Society of Jesus was formed by the close bond and spiritual insights of Ignatius Loyola, Francis Xavier, and the other first companions. In addition to their schools, which began to open in large numbers from the late 1540s, the Jesuits became most famous for their overseas missions in this age of discovery and expansion. Xavier was the Society’s proto-missionary, spending the last decade of his life (1542–1552) in Asia and setting a standard of evangelization and spiritual fervor that many fellow Jesuits and others would try to emulate.

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