US Catholic Faith in Real Life


By Greg Heffernan | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
St. Francis Xavier was a trusting missionary to the East.

A handsome, royal-blooded Basque descendant of the Castle Navarre, St. Francis Xavier dreamed of fame and fortune and of his name being echoed with awe throughout 16th-century Europe. In one sense he got his wish, but not in the way he expected because God had a plan. Xavier never became the lawyer he hoped to be; instead he achieved distinction as one of the most successful missionaries in the history of the Catholic Church, sailing thousands of miles through the distant seas of India, China, and Japan, and baptizing sometimes 30,000 people a month.

A lot of us have dreamed of “being somebody” in the world’s eyes—yet God’s eyes are clearer than our own.

When I was a sophomore at a Jesuit high school in San Jose, California, I dreamed of moving to Los Angeles and working in the television industry. A few years later I was on my way, writing for a CBS primetime series. By age 24 I was writing for CBS movies for television, and my scripts were touted in TV Guide and Hollywood Variety.

When I told my grandmother about my accomplishments, she wasn’t impressed. “What profit a man who gains the whole world but loses his soul?” she said, echoing Ignatius Loyola’s words to Francis Xavier when he met him at the University of Paris in 1529. Francis was 19 years old and on his way to becoming one of the top lawyers in Europe. But Loyola’s “Jesus quote” was brutal. Neither Xavier nor I took it lightly. I was angry. Xavier must have been also, because according to his biographers, he didn’t warm up to Loyola right away and resisted Loyola’s tugging at his spiritual conscience. He was going places—like me.

Soon after having my writing assignments publicized and watching my producer lose three movie deals to cocaine, I left the television industry, disenchanted and mentally exhausted. A few years later I found myself teaching young students about Jesus in a Catholic high school. It wasn’t my original plan, but it appeared to be God’s.

Xavier too veered from his original plan when on Aug. 15, 1534, he, Peter Faber, Ignatius Loyola, and four other men decided to dedicate themselves to God at a church in Montmartre, near Paris. The decision was countercultural for their time—just as it would be now. Because of war, preaching to Muslims in the Middle East, as these first Jesuits wanted to do, was too dangerous. Instead Xavier and the small “Company of Jesus” offered their lives to the church and its pontiff, ministering in hospitals while living very simple lives of prayer and fasting. Xavier’s dreams of becoming a famous advocate were further redirected by the king of Portugal, who wanted Xavier to be the pope’s representative in India. India was a place for opportunists, not a royal-blooded, highly educated man of Europe.

So Xavier went. And made history.

Xavier’s extensive letters to Loyola talk of his arms being so tired from baptizing people that he couldn’t lift them, of nights spent sobbing in prayer, and of sailing dangerous, uncharted waters. Yet Xavier did not shun danger, claiming, “In this life we find our greatest comfort living in the midst of danger, that is, if we confront it solely for the love of God.” At no time in his life had he ever been happier.

I must say that the satisfaction of teaching and preaching about Jesus and our faith far surpasses any worldly honors I received in the past, and that includes seeing my name flashed on a television screen from coast to coast. It’s not about money or fame; it’s about serving God. Throughout my life, Xavier’s legacy has reminded me of this lesson.

Several years ago I listened to businessmen on a radio station discuss the best stocks to buy if Bush went into Iraq—in other words, which companies would stand to profit. I wondered if we all aren’t guilty of putting monetary security above trust in Christ. Xavier’s words caution all of us about greed and ambition, which seem to be the real moral enemies of God’s kingdom. Xavier’s letters to Loyola criticizing the avarice of the Portuguese entrepreneur of the 16th century could well apply to the corporate world of today.

My wife is a Catholic from Goa, India, the town where Xavier first arrived in South Asia in 1542. Xavier’s legacy is evident now in the 25 million Catholics in India. The Bom Jesus Church in Goa, where Xavier’s incorrupt body lies, is the most visited Christian shrine in all of Asia. On my family’s numerous trips there, I am often humbled by the devotion of the people and their packed churches and services. Religious vocations in Asia currently outnumber those of Europe and the United States combined.

So you see, God has a plan—for each of us. It won’t necessarily result in wealth or notoriety, though. Perhaps that is the true beauty of St. Francis Xavier’s life after all.