A letter that set Europe on fire

December 02, 2020
Source: District of Asia
Saint Francis Xavier

“Go forth and set the world on fire” These were the parting words of St. Ignatius to St. Francis Xavier as the latter was departing for India. And he did ‘Set the world on fire’. It is mainly by his life, his apostolate he changed the fate and face of Asia for good. One of his letters is a sample how even in his life he knows how to set ‘Europe on fire’.  The letter is attached at the end.

On 27th of January 1545 St. Francis Xavier was in Kochi (Kerala). He happens to know there was a ship leaving for Portugal that day. And so, he wrote three letters in a hurry. One of them in Portuguese was addressed to Simon Rodrigues; the other two in Spanish, one meant for St. Ignatius and other for his companion in Rome. He left these two letters unsealed so that Rodrigues might read them and pass them on to Rome sealed. It is this letter to his companion that shook Europe! Can we also say this perhaps is the precursor of Les Lettres édifiantes? 

Naturally, this open letter of St. Francis Xavier was shown to the King. It was impossible to describe the excitement it caused in the court. The King declared that it was the most gratifying news he could ever hope to hear. He ordered the news to be proclaimed from every pulpit in the realm. He directed his treasurer to increase to 100% of the endowment for the Jesuits scholastics in Coimbra and to send twelve of them to India the following year.

Then began the triumphant progress of this letter written in a hurry. The letter reached Coimbra on October 19. The enthusiasm of the Scholastics knew no bounds. The Rector declared that it would not be difficult at all to transfer the whole college to India. The letter was at once translated into Latin, and copies in both the languages were put into circulation among friends and well-wishers of the Jesuits.

St. Peter Faber received the original and copies of the translation at Madrid with no less enthusiasm and wanted to go to the aid of His roommate and best friend. Prince Philip desired to read the letter naturally in the original. On November 19, St. Peter Faber forwarded the original letters to Rome and copies of this letter to Bobadilla (Who was originally chosen by St. Ignatius to go to India) in Cologne, who as well as his circle of friends greatly rejoiced.

At last the letter reached Rome towards the end of 1545 and it was promptly translated into Italian, a copy of which went to the scholastics in Paris on 17 January 1546. Msgr. Diogo Gouvea, the prime mover of this whole Jesuit affair, took his share in this surging wave of enthusiasm. He gave the imprimatur to the French translation of this letter. Louvain received its copy on 24 March 1546.

Laynez received a copy at the Council of Trent. One of the presidents of the Council, Cardenal Cervini, the future Pope Marcellus II (1555) had it read during his meals. The other fathers of the Council would not have been slow in reading it or knowing its contents.

King John III forwarded the letter to the Pope on 19 February 1546. And his ambassador in Rome printed and distributed a booklet on this whole affair of the missions in the east, incorporating extracts from this letter.

Lastly, the reactions of St. Ignatius to this letter are found in the letter written for him on 24 March 1546 by Lhost to Cornelius Wishaven in Louvain. In it Ignatius asks to inform Bobadilla in Cologne about the great things God was pleased to work through Master Francis, and then he is reported to have made some remarks about those wonderful things himself in a lyrical tone. He is reported to have said this:

Oh! What docile sons has the Mother Church found for Christ and how strong in persecution, so as to rejoice to find herself robed again in purple on her white tunic by her Spouse! For after baptism more than 600 bravely laid down their lives for Christ. In this way Christ in His love began to compensate for the injury done to her by those who defected to Martin Luther or Philip Melanchthon and for all those who weigh her down by their lives. In the same charity may He grant that, being ashamed of themselves and amending their ways, they may again be incorporated into her.

St. Francis Xavier, patron of all missions, pray for us.

Condensed by Fr. Therasian from P. Rayanna SJ, “St. Francis Xavier” (1964).

For the letter, click here.