Images of St Francis, Pilgrim, taken by Marina McCoy, Castle in Javier, Spain, 2019
A year and a half ago, I was able to travel to Spain with colleagues on a pilgrimage tracing the steps of St Ignatius of Loyola. One of the places that we also stopped was Javier, Spain, the home of Xavier (Javier) who came from a noble family. The former castle there now has a wide variety of art in it, as well as these delightful dioramas of the life of Francis Xavier SJ. Xavier, as many will know, was a close friend of Ignatius and one of the original cohorts in the Society. Famously, Ignatius sent him to the East (to India and Japan, among other places) as a missionary when another man who was to go fell ill, although this meant that he would never see his friend again. However, Ignatius carried the signature of Francis with him, not far from his heart, as a remembrance of the friendship that they had. They wrote letters to each another to remain in touch as well as to discuss the work, which Xavier undertook with great enthusiasm. He had more success in India than in Japan, and died before he was able to reach the mainland of China.
When our pilgrimage group arrived at the Gesù, the Jesuit Church in Rome, it was the first visit for many in our group, though I had been just to the Gesù and rooms of Ignatius once before on my own solitary pilgrimage. In the church, there is the hand of Xavier, which is incorrupted. That is, each time that the body of Xavier has been dug up from its various sites in China and Malaysia, the body had not rotted through. In the Catholic Church, this is viewed as a sign of a saint. When I saw his forearm (the only part of Xavier at the Gesù) on my solo visit, I was very moved by the relic and its strangeness, and eager for my friends on the pilgrimage to see. Alas, there was a black cover on the area of the altar for Xavier, where I had previously knelt and prayed. The relic may have been on a world tour, or there were renovations, but no arm, no altar.
The real truth of Xavier is not his incorruptible arm, though, but in a way his feet: his willingness to follow the Lord wherever the Lord called, whether that was making vows at Montmartre in Paris, or traveling all of the way to India and beyond. In this time of COVID, when many of us are unable to travel, I am heartened by the ways that we are all still connected despite the physical distance, just as Xavier and Ignatius were. Our family and friends may be far, but whether we stay connected through texts, emails, FaceTime, or simply prayers for one another. We also continue to be able to do what Xavier did, which was to follow the Lord wherever God calls us and missions us: whether that is taking care of loved ones in our home, being an essential worker who goes out into the world, feeding the hungry by sharing our relative wealth in a time of increased hunger and food insecurity, or simply praying for those who are far from us, for their health and happiness. We, like Francis, are called to go wherever God calls us, in freedom and generosity.
Happy Feast of St Francis!