JAVIER, Spain — In his Christmas homily, Pope Benedict XVI upheld seven saints as exemplary witnesses to the “path of light kindled ever anew by the mystery of Bethlehem.” One of the seven was St. Francis Xavier.

On April 7, the Church commemorates the 500th anniversary of his birth. The Holy Father has named Madrid Cardinal Antonio Rouco Varela as his personal envoy to the solemn celebrations taking place that day in the saint’s birthplace of Javier, Spain. The town is in the middle of a year of commemorative cultural and religious events, including special pilgrimages, conferences, exhibitions and concerts that began Dec. 3, the saint’s feast day.

Born into what Pope John Paul II called “a truly Christian family,” St. Francis Xavier left his family’s castle at the age of 19 for studies in Paris, where in time he lectured in philosophy. Xavier befriended two future saints — Ignatius of Loyola and Peter Faber — and they and four others made vows of chastity and poverty in 1534, forming what would become the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits. Three years later, Xavier was ordained to the priesthood and ministered in Bologna and Rome.

After the king of Portugal sought two Jesuits to evangelize his colonies in the East Indies, Xavier traveled from Rome to Lisbon. Appointed apostolic nuncio by Pope Paul III, he arrived in Goa on the west coast of India in 1542.

What followed was a missionary effort almost unparalleled in the history of the Church. Xavier preached the Gospel in modern-day India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia and Japan. On Dec. 3, 1552, at the age of 46, Xavier died on an island off the coast of China awaiting permission to enter the country. He was canonized in 1622.

The English scholar and poet John Dryden wrote in 1688 that it was commonly accepted Xavier had converted 700,000 souls.

Javier, Spain, is not the only center of devotion to St. Francis Xavier. His body, encased in a silver coffin, is venerated at the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Goa, and every 10 years, his relics are solemnly exposed there. During the most recent exposition — a 43-day period that ended in January 2005 — more than 2 million pilgrims venerated his relics.

The other major international center of devotion is the Church of the Gesu in Rome, run by the Jesuits, where the saint’s right arm rests in a side altar.

Of the more than 100 shrines listed in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Catholic Shrines and Places of Pilgrimage, only one is dedicated to the saint. Located in Warwick, Md., the St. Francis Xavier Shrine was founded by Jesuits in 1704 as a base for missionary work east of Chesapeake Bay. Minor basilicas in Dyersville, Iowa, and Vincennes, Ind., are also dedicated to him.

Papal Tributes

Modern popes have lauded Xavier’s sanctity and missionary zeal. In an 1893 encyclical, Pope Leo XIII praised the saint’s “extraordinary perseverance” and noted that he renewed the Christian institutions that had been introduced in India by St. Thomas the Apostle. Pope Pius XI named St. Francis Xavier and St. Therese of Lisieux patrons of the missions in 1927.

While in India in 1986, Pope John Paul II called Xavier “an inspiring example of personal holiness, an exceptional thirst for souls, and an ardent zeal to share our spiritual riches with the brothers and sisters among whom we live.” Later in his pontificate, he said the saint “teaches us the importance of forgetting our own desires and human plans and of giving ourselves entirely to God’s will.”

Pope Paul VI offered perhaps the greatest papal tribute to the saint. “After St. Paul,” he said in a 1965 address, St. Francis Xavier “deserves to be called the second Teacher of the Peoples.”

Echoing the words of the popes, prominent American Jesuits find in St. Francis Xavier an inspiring personal example and a model for all who seek to spread the Gospel. Jesuit Father Joseph Koterski, Fordham University philosophy chairman and secretary of University Faculty for Life, calls St. Francis Xavier’s missionary zeal “a constant example of what my efforts ought to look like.” Father Koterski recalled how Xavier initially grappled with the call to evangelize.

“For him, as for any of us, it was always possible to say, ‘Let someone else do it.’ But Xavier found that he could not give that reply,” Father Koterski said. “Ordinary Catholics in any walk of life can learn from him to step up to the challenges daily to be apostles in the service of Christ. What Xavier’s life story gives us is a sense of the urgency of not passing the buck in the hope that someone else will do it.”

Father James Kubicki, national director of the Apostleship of Prayer, calls St. Francis Xavier “an example of the sole reason for my vocation — the salvation of souls.”

“When we understand that God loves all people,” Father Kubicki told the Register, “we share his desire that all people be saved. Sharing that desire, we work for the salvation of souls in everything we do. All our prayers, works, sacrifices, and sufferings can be offered to God for the salvation of souls. This is the way ordinary Catholics who are not called to go to the missions can truly be missionaries themselves.”

Jeff Ziegler is based in

Ellenboro, North Carolina.