Among his many outstanding gifts, he was an indiscriminate baptiser. Some of his biographers guess that he baptised between 40,000 and 100,000 believers. One of his letters from India states that on a single day he performed 4,000 baptisms. That’s 167 an hour. I am guessing those ceremonies weren’t all that personal.
Xavier’s christening prowess was such that when Rome could not recover his whole body, the Jesuit General Claudius Acquaviva ordered Xavier’s baptising right arm to be severed at the elbow and conveyed to Rome. In 1617 it was enshrined in the Jesuit Church of the Gesù. By our standards, this seems rather ghoulish but the bejewelled relic is still there for all to see.
Xavier’s mission to baptise was about giving everyone a chance at salvation. He would be appalled by the attitude of some clergy these days who demand of young parents such a strong commitment to and practice of the faith that they have to turn up to several preparation classes before they can get their babies baptised. I am all for the good order of Sacraments and appropriate preparation for them, but my attitude more mirrors that of Xavier: I baptise anything that moves; I marry anything that moves; and I bury anything that doesn’t.
Making preparation courses an absolute condition for baptism is a contravention of Canon 868, where the only grounds for “delaying” – not denying – the Sacrament are where the celebrant knows there is no hope that the child will be brought up in the Catholic religion. These cases should be extremely rare. Pope Francis recently told a group of newly ordained priests: “It is never necessary to refuse baptism to someone who asks for it.”
So while I think we should recover Francis Xavier’s practices in regard to baptism – and we do so for very different theological and pastoral reasons – there remains a critical element to his missionary style that I think we could do well to recover immediately.
Xavier actually got off his backside and went out to the world. The Church these days can act as though we have every right to sit at home and wait for the world to come to us – often expecting it to talk our talk and walk our walk before we will have much to do with it.
The problem here is that when we ponder the great commission of Mark 16: 12, and its parallels, Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples to wait at home for the throng to come to them, but to do what Xavier did: go out and meet the world where they are, as they are.
Sometimes I am invited to speak at evangelisation conferences, and I listen to other speakers expound platforms and programmes of faith renewal. Many of these are worthy, to be sure. Personally, I like the paradox that our biggest moments of intersecting with the real world are when it come to us, at least partly on our terms. Baptisms, weddings and funerals are three of the greatest tools for evangelisation we have.
These days most of those who gather for these rites of passage do not darken the church door except on these occasions. Some bring with them deep wounds inflicted by Church personnel. All come with a vulnerability that only sorrow and joy can open up.
Imagine if our liturgies on these occasions were as welcoming and generous as they were well prepared? Imagine if the first words the congregation heard from the celebrant were of compassion and inclusion? In my pastoral experience, this can be the beginning of a new evangelisation.
I want to be as welcoming of people who do not necessarily tick all the religious boxes because the Lord seems to hold a special affection for them – non-Temple-going shepherds, Jewish tax collectors, women with bad reputations, notorious sinners with whom he dined, lepers and those who were considered ritually unclean. He didn’t ask them to do a mandatory, four-week programme.
Only a very few of these people became his public disciples. Tradition holds that they all became his followers in their own ways. So if this was good enough for the Lord, then why would his approach not be good enough for us? Like Francis Xavier, we need to recover the most ancient tradition of the Sacraments: it doesn’t matter where you start in the life of faith, it matters where Christ will finish it.