Catholic Culture Podcasts
Catholic Culture Podcasts

Arrival of Relic of St. Francis Xavier

by Cardinal George Pell

Descriptive Title

Cardinal Pell Homily for 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time 2012


Thousands of Australians venerated the holy relic of St Francis Xavier as it made its way around Australia on a national Pilgrimage of Grace in September 2012. On its arrival in Australia, the relic was taken to St Mary's Church at North Sydney where there was a special Mass with Cardinal George Pell, Bishop Peter Comensoli, Fr Curtin SJ and other Jesuit priests and priests of the Archdiocese of Sydney. Cardinal Pell gave this homily.

Publisher & Date

Archdiocese of Sydney, September 16, 2012

For those who are interested in religion and more particularly in Christianity, how we answer the question "who is Christ?" is pivotal, and central; unless of course we decide to go in another direction into some form of unbelief - mild or radical, or agnosticism, or Buddhism, or Islam or some other thing.

Rather my concern is about the relationship between the one true God and Christ and the consequences that follow in the nature of things and for us as individuals from the answers that we give about Christ.

Some may see our asking this question about a person who lived 2,000 years ago as a bad mistake. Basically, our society is geared to the future and not to the past. We are geared to appreciate the latest technological advances; we wonder at the pace of scientific discovery. We like to have the latest appliances in our homes (or we would like to be able to afford them). Generally, we do not look back to a Golden Age as previous ages did, rather than looking forward.

I have quoted a few times a thirteen or fourteen year old altar server at an altar servers' convention when I was explaining to him the importance of following Jesus. He put his hand up and said, "yes but Jesus lived a long time ago and things have changed quite a bit since Jesus lived." That is true. That is the way people think.

Was not Our Lord's world of ideas so much smaller and life much more primitive scientifically, 2,000 years ago? Can Jesus' teaching cope with modern life? It is interesting to note that today, unlike the situation ten or twenty years ago no-one is predicting that religion or Catholicism will disappear. In fact the number and percentage of believers in the major religions is increasing across the world.

Now in discussing this question of first who Jesus was, his disciples in the Gospel today belonged to an age and a religion that is different from ours, so their answers were typical of devout, religiously educated Jews. Some said that Jesus was Elijah (a 9th century B.C. prophet); others suggested he was John the Baptist or one of the prophets.

It is probably true that none of us here would be tempted to think of Jesus as Elijah or John the Baptist, but certainly some today, perhaps many, would think of Jesus as a great prophet, like Jeremiah or Ezekiel or Isaiah; or perhaps like the founding figures of other religious traditions such as Buddha. Not too many in the Western world today would compare him with Mohammad.

And yet another group would say that it really does not matter too much exactly who Jesus is, as long as we acknowledge that he was a wonderful man, he was certainly close to God, that he left us beautiful teachings and he left us the memory of an equally beautiful and exemplary life and death.

In other words there are some people, often religious sympathisers or outsiders rather than believers and religious practitioners, who wish Jesus to be seen as one offering among an interesting variety of options. One way of coping with the good times and the bad times in life.

Unfortunately for them and fortunately for us, the New Testament writings and the Catholic Church tradition do not think in these terms. We accept the traditional claims that Jesus is not only the Messiah, i.e. the liberator, the saviour the Jews were expecting, but he is also the only Son of God, who was crucified and then rose from the dead. These claims are not run of the mill stuff. Being a Christian is not like choosing one football team among many. These claims of the Church and of Christ himself are extreme claims!

There were significant difficulties for Jesus' disciples in accepting him as the Messiah, who was almost universally expected to be a political saviour for the Jews. Not only did Jesus avoid this, but in this passage it says that after Peter confessed that he was the Messiah, Jesus then went on to explain that he was to suffer and to be out to death. I have every sympathy for Peter who objected to this prospect.

We can just imagine it, one of our friends we admire saying, I am in for a lot of suffering and people are going to put me to death. We would say, no, no, no way, that is not going to happen, we will not allow it to happen. And Jesus did not let Peter down easily - thanks very much for your kind words, but unfortunately it is not going to work out like that; Jesus rebuked him very strongly and said that is the way Satan talks.

Today we remember a man who gave up a promising career to dedicate himself totally to Christ and go to the other side of the world in Asia, which had only recently become accessible to Europe through the discovery and opening up of the sea routes to the East around the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of Africa.

Francis Xavier, born in 1506, a Spaniard from the northern province of Navarre, was one of the first three members of a tiny radical group of religious reformers founded by the ex-soldier Ignatius of Loyola, whom we know now as the Jesuits.

When Ignatius founded his small group in 1534 the Catholic Church was under enormous pressure. In 1517 a young Augustinian friar from Germany, Martin Luther, had rebelled against the Catholic package calling people back to Christ and the gospel. He preached and wrote powerfully in his local language, German, which he helped create. The recently invented printing presses spread his message, which was taken up by other more radical Protestants such as Calvin and John Knox. The Protestants published the first catechisms for the ordinary people. In England Henry VIII, who wanted a son had rejected the Pope, closed the monasteries and gave most of their wealth to the local aristocrats (locking in their support). One consequence was that the only welfare organizations which cared for the poor were closed. Many, many people died of hunger.

The new world of the Americas had been discovered with Pope Alexander VI, the notorious Borgia pope, dividing the New World between Spain and Portugal.

Contrary to what I was told as a child, Catholic life in England on the eve of the Reformation was pretty strong, but elsewhere corruption and indifference were not uncommon. The early sixteenth century popes were secular princes and patrons of the arts, without any excessive interest in Christ or the gospel!

The Jesuits were dedicated to fostering Church reform and missionary work to translate the love and teachings of Christ its daily living. Their foundation preceded the reforming Council of Trent which only started in 1545. The Catholic Authorities had dithered for 18 years after Luther's revolt of 1517.

Francis Xavier was secretary to Ignatius and at a day's notice left for his missionary journeys to Asia - India, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan and Indonesia. He died in 1552 at Shangchuan Island attempting to enter China. He converted tens of thousands, especially in India, calling them to the standard of Christ the King, urging them to oppose the forces of evil. He feared many souls were being lost to heaven as, unlike us, he did not believe that entry to heaven was a universal human right.

He did not come to found social welfare, or education or justice centres, but to preach personal conversions to Christ. All these good works followed the conversions because his faith was strong and vital producing the good works James required as evidence of faith.

Today the Catholic Church has 117,000 health institutions around the world providing 26 percent of the world's health care. Yesterday an Indian bishop told me how the Catholics in India (less than 2 percent) in some sectors and in some areas provide 30 per cent of the education provision.

Francis Xavier was one of the greatest missionaries in the history of the Church. We desperately need his like as we face today's challenges.

Relics are somewhat counter-cultural for us in Australia today as we have absorbed some of the dour Protestant scepticism about these Catholic devotions.

However we go to exhibitions to see historical memorabilia on e.g. Napoleon or Alexander the Great. This pilgrimage is within this secular genre. We do not worship the saints, much less their relics, but we revere and take inspiration from the saints as the greatest followers of Christ and we use relics, somewhat as we use water and oil and rosary beads, to strengthen our personal faith in Christ.

Let us pray that many people, especially young people, will be encouraged by the example and story of Francis Xavier and be inspired to follow him in faith and action.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

© 1999-2012 Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney

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