Text: British Jesuit Provincial: Feast of St Francis Xavier

Farm Street Church

Farm Street Church

Yesterday evening at Farm Street, the British Provincial  Fr Michael Holman, preached at the Mass for the Feast of St Francis Xavier, which was also a Mass of Thanksgiving for contributors to and supporters of Pray-as-you-go.  This is what he said:

Two days ago, having some time on my hands, I took a walk at around mid-day out of my office here in Mount Street, across Grosvenor Square and up to Oxford Street.  I went to stand on a traffic island in the middle of the Edgware Road where it meets Bayswater Road just opposite Marble Arch.  Well, what would you do with a few moments to spare in central London?

For us Jesuits and for a great many others in the Church in this country, that traffic island is a special place.

In the middle there is a plaque where Tyburn Tree once stood.  On December 1st, we celebrated the memory of Edmund Campion.  With two companions, the Jesuit Alexander Briant and the secular priest Ralph Sherwin, all missionaries to England, he was executed on that spot on that day in 1581.

It struck me at the time how, looking around from the middle of that busy street, you get a good enough idea of the city to which and the people to whom we have been sent today.

It's a world so different from that which Edmund Campion knew.  And so different from the world of Francis Xavier who grew up 60 years before in a castle in northern Spain.  There his horizons as a young man as he stood on its battlements were limited by the hills that surrounded him on all sides, yet in adult life he carried the gospel to the edge of the known world and beyond.  Since then, he has become the model and the motivation for the generations of missionaries, from Campion's time to today.

Different though our world may be, wouldn't you say our mission is equally urgent?

Back on that traffic island, taxis, buses, private cars and motor bikes swirl around; people rush from one crossing place to another.  Theirs is the busy-ness with which we lead our lives, with appointments to keep and deadlines to meet and with far too little time for each other, or for what matters most, or so it can seem.

Down Oxford Street the view that morning was clear all the way to Centre Point and beyond.  It's the temple we might say of our consumer society.  People moving in and out of shops in their thousands, natives, tourists, of many cultures, of every colour, clutching so many yellow Selfridges bags, victims of the message that happiness and fulfilment lie in having more, or so we might suppose.

And up above and around, in the businesses, the hedge funds and investment houses, there are so many men and women, preoccupied with profit margins, targets, objectives and performance indicators, fearful in this recession of losing their bonus and indeed their job.  Deaf to the deeper things of life, we may surmise, but how often they surprise us.

For take time to pierce the thick crust of current convention with which we cover ourselves, or which our culture imposes upon us, and look beneath the surface and how different the picture can be.

Concerns about health and family, the present and the future, children, student loans, ageing parents; maybe some guilt, perhaps an argument, possibly unease about double standards.  Relationships, love, poetry, music, beauty, transcendence, fun and of course football.

Limited, vulnerable, failing, succeeding, restless, searching, multi faith, multi cultural, multi everything.  Our crazy but loveable world, as our last General Congregation said, with its crazy, loveable people.  His people, the people to whom we have been sent.

You and I, where are we in all this? The 17th century Spanish painter Esteban Murillo painted a portrait of Francis Xavier, most likely for a patron in Seville.  There is Xavier with his traveller's staff, one way looking up towards the light, consumed by it, captivated by it, open mouthed in astonishment at it, the other way moving out towards the people who surround him.  So?

Our previous Superior General, Fr Peter Hans Kolvenbach, once remarked, and how well, that it is intimacy with Christ which impels us to share that intimacy with others.  Right inside that relationship, that's where you and I, we missionaries, hope to live, even on a traffic island in the midst of Edgware Road.

Benedict XVI was in Brescia the other week where he spoke of the need to establish a relationship of understanding and love with contemporary society, with its people, with the men and women round about us.  He wanted to pay tribute to Paul VI who was born nearby.  He spoke of Paul's commitment to a church conformed to the life and example of Jesus Christ; a church which deepens its consciousness of itself by looking to him, so that in encountering the Church, in encountering you and me, the men and women of our time might encounter him.

So today we search for the means and we search for the words with which we might share this intimacy with others, just as centuries ago Xavier did and Campion searched in their day.

The words and the means to talk about 'meaning', to talk about the value of a friendship, of a companionship with the one who walks with you side by side, who knows about life because he's lived it too, who is on our side and will not let us go, who cheers us up and will not have us sad, in whose words we can find the wisdom we long for and in whose life we can find the fulfilment we are made for.

Tonight we all give God thanks that, through the 12 million and more downloads of pray-as-you-go, some have come to Christ for the first time, others have had their faith strengthened, while others having met him will use this as a way of sharing their intimacy with others.

With much creativity and with as much ingenuity, thanks to Peter, Ruth and Frances and the collaboration of so many of you, this is one of the ways in which the mission of Campion and Xavier, the mission of the Church to the end of the world and beyond, the mission of Christ, is carried on.  But how will it move forward?

Francis Xavier laboured in the Far East for ten years.  First in India, next in the Malaccan Islands, then in Japan, dying on the island of Changchun within sight of China.  He was not a man for standing still either in the literal or in the figurative sense.  For the more he got into his challenging ministry, the more his understanding of his apostolate deepened.

He became increasingly sensitive to the culture of the people for whom he worked and increasingly aware of the need for a more profound catechesis before administering the sacrament of baptism with which his ministry is primarily associated.  So he set about learning at least some Tamil, Malayo and Japanese.

In this way, Francis discerned his way forward, by listening out for the voice of his Lord in the midst of the many voices of those with whom he worked and for whom he gave his life.  That's what made him a companion of Jesus.  That's how he moved forward in his ministry and it's the way we'll move forward in ours too, sensitive to the changing needs of men and women around us and to the way the Lord is working in them.

Among the last words which Ignatius Loyola wrote to his friend Francis Xavier were these: 'May he who is the eternal life of all those who truly live grant us his abundant grace so that we may always know his most holy will and perfectly fulfil it.  Wholly yours and always in our Lord, Ignatius. '

And who can doubt that tonight that's the prayer Ignatius and Francis make for us too.

Michael Holman SJ

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