Every time I’ve been to Rome, I’ve always made a point to visit the Church of the Gesu. Perhaps the best example of baroque art and architecture in the world, it is a monument to a triumphant Church confident in the truths of the Creed and in the Kingship of her Lord. It appeals to the senses and emotions and it is designed to do so. Yet for all its splendor, the real splendor of the church are the relics it contains–the body of St. Ignatius Loyola and the arm of his dear friend St. Francis Xavier.
This past June on my visit to Rome, I stopped at the Gesu and venerated these great saints. I took a photo of Xavier’s right arm, encased as it is amidst precious metals, and on display for the veneration of the faithful. Fr. Claudio Aquaviva, Father General of the Society of Jesus, ordered that this relic be removed from Xavier’s body in India and brought back to Rome for this purpose in 1614.
The sight of St. Francis’s arm is a moving experience when one considers the miraculous feats of this man. It is a cause of wonder and awe to see the very arm that pulled the ropes of a sailing vessel that took him to the far east; that carried provisions and supplies in a strange land. Indeed, before me was a hand that, nearly five centuries earlier, was raised in blessing over hundreds of thousands of people in India, China, and Japan; the hand that, making the sign of the cross, absolved thousands of their sins and lifted high the Body of the Lord; the hand that baptized hundreds of thousands and cultivated the seed of faith planted in the Far East; the very hand that pointed out to little Indian children the simple catechism truth that Jesus loves every human person. Indeed, this was God’s hand on earth. There has not been a missionary–save St. Paul–either before or since like St. Francis Xavier.
And why did he suffer so much? Endure so much? Travel so far from home? He had a love for all people and a desire to bring them to Christ. I suspect that he also had in his mind the very thing Pope Francis said in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium:
I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord”. The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms. Now is the time to say to Jesus: “Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you. I need you. Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace”. How good it feels to come back to him whenever we are lost! Let me say this once more: God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy. Christ, who told us to forgive one another “seventy times seven” (Mt 18:22) has given us his example: he has forgiven us seventy times seven. Time and time again he bears us on his shoulders. No one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by this boundless and unfailing love. With a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and to start anew. Let us not flee from the resurrection of Jesus, let us never give up, come what will. May nothing inspire more than his life, which impels us onwards!
Unmistakably, this was the conviction of the greatest of the missionaries. The beauty is that Xavier’s missionary work has not ended. He is present to each of us today and he challenges us by his example. Most importantly his hand is still raised in blessing to all those who invoke him. The strength of his arm is the strength of God’s eternal love. Its physical presence in a church in Rome is a tangible and holy reminder of this love.
On this great feast of St. Francis and in these coming days as we prepare for the coming of the Lord at Christmas, let us pray the great prayer of St. Francis Xavier which is echoed in the Pope’s recent exhortation:
O Deus, ego amo te,
Nec amo te, ut salves me,
Aut, quia non amantes te
Æterno punis igne.
Tu, tu, mi Jesu, totum me
Amplexus es in cruce;
Tuliste clavos, lanceam,
Sudores, et angores,
Et mortem, et hæc propter me,
Ac pro me peccatore.
Cur igitur non amem te,
O Jesu amantissime,
Non, ut in cœlo salves me,
Aut ne æternum damnes me,
Nec præmii ullius spe;
Sed sicut tu amasti me?
Sic amo et amabo te,
Solum quia Rex meus es,
Et solum, quia Deus es.
O GOD, I love thee, I love thee-
Not out of hope of heaven for me
Nor fearing not to love and be
In the everlasting burning.
Thou, thou, my Jesus, after me
Didst reach thine arms out dying,
For my sake sufferedst nails, and lance,
Mocked and marred countenance,
Sorrows passing number,
Sweat and care and cumber,
Yea and death, and this for me,
And thou couldst see me sinning.
Then I, why should not I love thee,
Jesu, so much in love with me?
Not for heaven’s sake;
not to be out of hell by loving thee.
Not for any gains I see;
But just the way that thou didst me
I do love and I will love thee:
What must I love thee, Lord, for then?
For being my king and God. Amen.
(translation by Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ)