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  • Spencer Low

St. Francis Xavier and the Portuguese presence in Asia

The Catholic Church's World Youth Day that just ended on August 6 saw thousands of pilgrims from all across Asia travel to Portugal. One of the historical factors for the spread of Catholicism in Asia was the missionary work of the Spanish noble, Francis Xavier, one of the co-founders of the Jesuit Order. Xavier died 13 years before the Spanish, traveling from Mexico, arrived in what is today the Philippines, and so his legacy was due entirely to the extensive Portuguese presence in Asia.

Statue of St. Francis Xavier outside St. Paul's Church in Malacca

After Xavier was ordained as a priest in Venice in 1537, the plans for the Society of Jesus proposed by Ignatius of Loyola were approved by Pope Paul III in 1540. That very year, King João of Portugal requested Jesuit missionaries to be sent to the Portuguese territories in India, and Xavier set sail from Lisbon in 1541, arriving in Goa in 1542 after spending almost eight months in Portuguese Mozambique. For the next 10 years, Xavier would travel all across Asia (including even a stop in Singapore), but he was mostly active in five regions: southern India and Ceylon (now referred to as Sri Lanka, click here for related post), Malacca, the Spice Islands in today's Indonesia, Japan and China.

By Nicoco007 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Before he could start his overland journey to try to meet the Chinese Emperor in Beijing, Xavier died of a fever in December 1552 while waiting for a boat to take him to the mainland from Shangchuan Island (上川岛 in Chinese) off the coast of Guangdong province. Shangchuan (and later Lampacau Island) was the site of annual trade missions between Ming Dynasty China and Portugal, and was so named in Chinese after the Portuguese Ilha São João. It wasn't until 1557 that Macau, almost a hundred kilometres to the northeast, became a permanent Portuguese trade base.

Even after death, Xavier was inextricably caught up in the Portuguese network in Asia. He was first buried on a beach on Shangchuan Island before his body was moved a few months later in 1553 to St. Paul's Church in Malacca. Later that year, the corpse was again shipped to Goa where, reputedly incorruptible without showing signs of decay, it attracted large crowds that wanted to kiss the feet and touch their beads against the body resting in the Basilica of Bom Jesus. Xavier was canonized as a saint in 1622 and his body is still displayed publicly every 10 years at the Goan basilica. Relics of St. Francis Xavier can today be found in Rome, Macau and Sydney, Australia.

Pilgrims raising candles to the glass tomb cover of St. Francis Xavier in the Basilica of Dom Jesus, Goa, 1974

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