New St. Francis Xavier Documentary Shows ‘There Are No Limits’ for Missionary Disciples
The film makes its EWTN debut on Dec. 3, exploring the formative years that transformed St. Francis Xavier into an apostle to India and the Far East.
St. Francis Xavier is regarded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Catholic missionary since St. Paul the Apostle. A new EWTN documentary explores the pivotal formative years of this co-founder of the Society of Jesus, who left a promising career as a philosphy professor to be a missionary to India, Malaysia and Japan, before dying in sight of China.
In this Register interview, documentary producer Daniela Gurrieri from the Rome-based Cristiania Video, shares how the new documentary came about amid the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the profound spiritual insights of St. Francis Xavier about what it means to follow Jesus, and how St. Francis Xavier exemplifies the spirit of “missionary discipleship” Pope Francis has called forth in the Catholic Church today.
What inspired this documentary on the life of St. Francis Xavier?
In 2018 with EWTN, we produced the movie Mother Cabrini, on the life of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini. It was thanks to Mother Cabrini that we met the figure of St. Francis Xavier. In that [prior] movie, we had included a scene where, on the ship that was taking her to the U.S., Mother Cabrini explains to some children why she had added the name “Xavier” to her own when she became a sister. It was out of her admiration for the “Apostle of the Indies” that she had developed her vocation as a missionary. And she spends the time of her journey towards the United States telling them the story of Francis Xavier.
After the movie was completed, EWTN shared with us the idea of a documentary on St. Francis Xavier. From that moment (it was the end of 2019), we started studying his biographies and letters, and his life was so stunning that we started to think about a movie, not just a documentary: a movie where the missionary aspect of his years spent in India and East Asia was prominent. The script was written and shared with EWTN, but it was in that very moment that the COVID pandemic broke out; and we had to stop and wait. A great part of the scenes needed to be filmed outside Europe, and so it was a problem. The project was just suspended. It was at the beginning of this year that the idea of working on a documentary came out again. It was again a wonderful experience, because this time we focused on the origin of his vocation, which necessarily involved the origin of the Society of Jesus and his friendship with Ignatius of Loyola. And now we are waiting for the good moment when we hope to be able to make the movie.
The documentary spends a lot of time on the formation of the Society of Jesus. Why is this event so key to understanding St. Francis Xavier’s life?
It is difficult to fully understand someone if you don’t go back to his or her origin or past. I fully understood the missionary zeal of Mother Cabrini after I knew that her vocation was born when, as a child, every evening her father used to read to her the letters and testimonies of missionaries from around the world, among whom were St. Francis Xavier’s. She wanted to go to China because she learned that Xavier died on an island in front of China, waiting to go there to convert the Chinese. She wanted to continue from where he had been interrupted.
In order to seize the spirit of what Xavier did in his missionary years, it is fundamental to learn about his origins. This is why we asked Jesuit Father Jean Paul Hernandez to tell us the origins of the Society of Jesus, which he did in an excellent way. And it was very interesting to discover that we wouldn’t have St. Francis Xavier without St. Ignatius of Loyola. Francis Xavier had very different ambitions — culture, knowledge, fame. Meeting Ignatius changed his life. What touched me most about Xavier is that once he understood what Ignatius had been trying to tell him for years, he was totally devoted to this new life — whatever it meant. “Yes, yes; no, no”… until he gave his life to the cause of evangelizing people in the Far East. Ignatius and the first companions of the Society of Jesus would always be in Xavier’s heart while in India, Malaysia, Japan and so forth. Their bond was a bond of faith, much more than a family bond. This bond of brotherhood in faith, together with his love for Jesus, was a continuous encouragement for him to go on, a spiritual link that continued till the last day of his life, although the only material bond were the few letters that he received from them. Learning how the Society of Jesus was born and the spirit that animated them at the beginning helped us understand the great impact Xavier had in the Far East, an impact which still continues today. And he also had a very big impact in Europe because he wrote many letters which inflamed many hearts and produced numerous missionary vocations.
The documentary does not go into as much depth about St. Francis Xavier’s missionary activity in India and the Far East as it did about his formation in the Society of Jesus. Was that a strategic decision, or do you imagine a follow-up documentary to focus on this final act of his life?
Let’s say it is a sort of preparation for the movie, which we really hope to make in the near future. The script is ready. But a full-length movie needs strong economic support, and we really hope that some donor may decide to support EWTN for such a movie.
What does the documentary tell us about St. Francis Xavier’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ?
With the help of Father Hernandez, in the documentary we learn that the first companions also had to solve this problem: While on their way to Rome, they asked themselves, “What should we call ourselves if they ask us who we are?” Thus they begin to evaluate different names: Ignazians, Ignigists ... companions of Ignatius. ... In the end, they say: No, among us the only leader is Jesus, and therefore we are “Companions of Jesus.” We find in Francis Xavier the imprint given by these first companions when he goes on a mission. He will be so united with Jesus as to perform several miracles, especially in India, of which there are numerous testimonies in ancient biographies. Father Hernandez continues by saying that despite the fact that he noticed and reported many misdeeds and robberies by both Europeans but also by the locals themselves, such as the problem of caste, etc. ... “Xavier,” Father Hernandez says, “also realizes that there is nothing so disruptive, revolutionary, precious than making sure that these people can discover themselves loved by God, because this is what really changes one’s life.”
And this is also one of the fruits of the Spiritual Exercises [of St. Ignatius]. Father Hernandez explains this very well in the documentary: “This is what Francis Xavier experiences during the month of Spiritual Exercises, which are a real school to become a disciple of Jesus Christ. That much is undeniable. The Spiritual Exercises are also said to be a school of discernment par excellence, but that is actually the same thing, because discernment means deciding how to give everything, how to love: This is discernment. What will ‘my’ way of loving be?”
Deepening the origins, we also discover that the term “mission” — missionary activity — was born with Ignatius. And so Francis Xavier, Missionary to the Indies, fulfills the mission that Ignatius already foresaw and which is represented in the painting above Ignatius’ tomb, in the Jesuits’ Church of the Gesù in Rome, as Father Hernandez recounts:
“In the tomb of St. Ignatius of Loyola in Rome, in Church of the Gesù, there is a very interesting iconographical, theological sequence: One sees the Three Persons of the Trinity, in which the Father sends his Son in the Incarnation; then the Son, Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate, sends Ignatius, and gives him a banner representing the Gospel to proclaim. Then Ignatius and his companions in turn go to proclaim — this is represented by an angel there — to the four continents. So the continuation of the sending of the Son, of the Incarnation, is mission, to be sent to preach the Gospel. It is all one. So, when you are sent to proclaim the Gospel, when you are sent on a mission, when you put your life into play in obeying … in accepting to be sent, you are all one with the life and the mission of Jesus Christ, with the Incarnation itself; you are the continuation of the Incarnation.”
So when Francis Xavier goes to India on a mission, he is the continuation of the incarnation of Jesus.
How important, in your estimation, is St. Francis Xavier to the Church’s emphasis today on “missionary discipleship?”
What Pope Francis wishes in Evangelii Gaudium is that each one of us, as baptized, tries to be a missionary wherever we are, and basically tries to be part of this “continuation of the Incarnation,” as I mentioned before. Among other things, my husband and I, who are the founders of CRISTIANA Video (who produced this documentary for EWTN), we come from many years of missionary experience, especially in Africa, so we feel this aspect is true, for having lived it firsthand. This work of ours in the media today comes from that missionary work and is its continuation. And this also has to do with our own baptism: We are called to bear fruit. Francis Xavier baptized thousands and thousands of people, and we asked Jesuit Father Ottavio de Bertolis to explain in the documentary what baptism is and why it was so important for Xavier. I believe that his answer helps us to feel the importance of our baptism and how to make it bear fruit. This is mission.
Do you think laypeople, not just clergy and religious, can take inspiration from St. Francis Xavier? What impact do you want to see in people who watch this documentary?
Not only! In India, we witnessed that there are people of different denominations who come to pray at Xavier’s tomb in Goa: Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims. So he’s an inspiration for all kinds of people. Why? I think because people felt and still feel that what he wanted to bring was not himself, his own knowledge, what he had learned about this or that aspect of reality (he was a philosophy professor!), but that he wanted to make sure people could really encounter God in their lives. And he gave his life for this. I wish this could be the impact of the documentary, as Francis Xavier said, “There are no limits; I go on, ever further.”
This article has been lightly edited for clarity.
St. Francis Xavier: To the Ends of the Earth will debut Dec. 3 at 5pm Eastern on EWTN.