St Francis Xavier, disability, and examining our limits



3 December has a couple of interesting resonances for this blind Jesuit. It is the feast day of St Francis Xavier — Jesuit missionary extraordinaire. It is also the International Day of Persons with a Disability. It seems to me that the two anniversaries have more than a little in common — both in what they tell us about the limits and the promise of human life in the image of God.

St Francis Xavier (Wikicommons)

Xavier, as I have suggested elsewhere, is a very complicated person. This Basque noble was able to see Christ present in anyone, regardless of race or class, and eminently available to push boundaries (physical and spiritual) in the name of the God of Love. He insisted on Jesuits inculturating — learning the languages of those they wished to serve and understanding something of their communities.

However, he was also definitely very much a man of his time when it came to missing the richness of the cultures among which he moved. His understanding of the absolute need for conversion as end in itself meant that baptisms were more important than community building and the Church he introduced to the locals often viewed them more as targets for discipline than collaborators in the vineyard of the Lord.

The UN’s International Day of Persons with Disability also invites a complex response. Like Xavier, it speaks of a concern for others which transcends borders or historical prejudice. It summons people to a recognition of shared purpose and common humanity — an invitation across psychological and social boundaries that divide even more emphatically than lines on a map. As Pope Francis says in his latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti (98):

'I would like to mention some of those "hidden exiles" who are treated as foreign bodies in society. Many persons with disabilities “feel that they exist without belonging and without participating". Much still prevents them from being fully enfranchised. Our concern should be not only to care for them but to ensure their "active participation in the civil and ecclesial community. That is a demanding and even tiring process, yet one that will gradually contribute to the formation of consciences capable of acknowledging each individual as a unique and unrepeatable person".'

Yet, like Xavier, we start from here: from the prejudices and mindsets of our own time. It is easy to sneer at the prejudices of the 16th century Church about salvation of the pagans and horrors (such as the Goan Inquisition) which Xavier indirectly enabled. We, who live in an age of globalised human rights rhetoric, abhor the idea that colonisation and forced conversion could ever have been justified based on differences in faith.


'As with the feast of Francis Xavier, the genuine impulse to holiness and the exhortation to individuals to see beyond the limits of themselves and their society to the potential for a broader unity is something to be celebrated. It is an opportunity to assess and take stock, to see how the rhetoric we proclaim matches the lived reality of our world.'


And yet, to sneer would be to ignore the areas in which our own society — at least implicitly — does not yet regard all of its members as fully human. To sneer would be to ignore the fact that, in contemporary Australia, children with disabilities are caged at school, COVID plans routinely ignore disability and open discussion of eugenics (in the shape of rationing health care based on assumed quality of life) is back in fashion. Australia’s elite forces have been filmed drinking beer from the looted prosthesis of a disabled Afghan killed by the troops and kept as a gruesome trophy. The Royal Commission on Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability has heard harrowing testimony on abuse, segregation, violence and discrimination, finding (in its interim report) that:

'The key issues are often connected to the emerging themes we have identified, suggesting that the violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation experienced by people with disability is not limited to discrete settings or contexts. Rather, violence against, and abuse, neglect and exploitation of, people with disability may be the result of systemic failures across multiple areas.'

In the face of all that it might be easy to be cynical — to argue that one International Day of Persons with Disability a year allows us to be ignored with a clear conscience on the other 364 — just as a celebration of the virtues of Francis Xavier ignores his very real limitations.

I genuinely believe that to do so, however, would be to miss the point. As with the feast of Francis Xavier, the genuine impulse to holiness and the exhortation to individuals to see beyond the limits of themselves and their society to the potential for a broader unity is something to be celebrated.

It is an opportunity to assess and take stock, to see how the rhetoric we proclaim matches the lived reality of our world. It is a given that all of us, with disabilities or not, are limited. Our opportunity to transcend those limits lies not in seeking to deny them but rather, collectively, to flow through them in sharing our limited lives with others as we seek to live in union with God.



Justin GlynFr Justin Glyn SJ has a licentiate in canon law from St Paul University in Ottawa. Before entering the Society he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.

Main image: St Francis Xavier (Wikicommons)

Topic tags: Justin Glyn, disability, ableism, Saint Francis Xavier, International Day of Persons with a Disability



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Existing comments

One of the strengths of the Catholic faith can be found in the celebration of the lives of the church's Saints. It somehow transcends the everyday and reaches for the stars. And in reaching out in this way we can see their lives (and ours) as a beautiful struggle. People living with disabilities need loving advocates who see their lives as being of such intrinsic value that the advocates' lives would be much poorer without them. Every one of us struggles with our lives. Maybe we need to celebrate the times we can reach out and make a difference to others and to ourselves.
Pam | 02 December 2020

Our individual limitations and talents, as Ignatius and Xavier both knew well, and Justin's reflection here reminds us, are part of God's providential purpose for each of us in the ministry of word and action we receive through the Church in baptism. Xavier's selfless and courageous service is a living embodiment of his mentor's prayer, "Dearest Lord, teach me to be generous . . ." and testament to the eschatological vison that motivated him when he finally accepted the persistent reminders of Ignatius in their university days in Paris: "What does it profit a man . . . ?"(Mark 8: 36)
John RD | 03 December 2020

O tempora! O mores! Who would have thought that sport would draw athletes with a disability into the Olympic movement - so long the preserve of the fit, the young, and the gifted? We've come a long way since 1936. I wish I could see a correlation with the Church's attitude to the Canonization of Saints. For the first millennium champions of the Faith were for the most part "local heroes" . But the Imperial urge for control was too strong. Pope Alexander III (d. 1181) started the trend but it wasn't till the 17th century that the current process that involves a minute inquiry into the candidate's life came into operation. Pius XII, while not decrying martyrdom by blood, also spoke of "the martyrdom of the daily routine". By any standard of heroic sanctity I have met many Irish and Australian Catholic women raising families who I would describe as "Saints of the Suburbd". In the absence of a Postulator they will never be canonized.
Joseph Quigley | 03 December 2020

“We, who live in an age of globalised human rights rhetoric.” And it’s mostly rhetoric! In 1511, appalled by the treatment of indigenous people by his countrymen, Dominican Father Antonia de Montesinos demanded, “By what right are they not human beings?” Thereby declaring a new basis for justice—human rights. Today, babies with disabilities are routinely aborted; 11 Christians are killed daily for their faith; in China over 1 million Muslims are in concentration camps. In 2019, the leading cause of deaths worldwide was abortion (42.3 million). Bill Clinton wanted abortion “safe, legal and rare”. Today it is celebrated (#ShoutYourAbortion). When New York legalized late-term abortions, the assembly erupted in cheers, and Catholic Governor Andrew Cuomo had the spire at One World Trade Centre lit up in pink. Catholic Joe Biden has promised to codify in federal law Roe-v-Wade’s spurious right to abortion. Survivors of abortion are routinely left to die--27 in 2015 (Queensland); 766 in 5 years (Canada). The Victorian government’s proposed Covid-19 Bill effectively sought to overturn the human rights’ safeguards enshrined in Magna Carta of 1215. Yet there was barely an objection from those always loudest in proclaiming human rights. Political expediency clearly trumps human rights.
Ross Howard | 03 December 2020

A very sensitive and aware evaluation of St Francis Xavier, who was, as you rightly say, a man of his times, with all the strengths and weaknesses of those remote times. Were he alive today I think he would be a genuine man of these times and tailor his work to the present age. As you point out so well, Justin, there are disturbing signs of the attitude and treatment of people with disabilities around. There are also excellent examples of their treatment as well. What disturbs me is the rerise of certain opinions in the scientific and medical community about Eugenics. In the past this led to appalling crimes against people with disabilities in Nazi Germany. Supposedly voluntary euthanasia of the disabled is taking place in countries such as the Netherlands today. This appals me.
Edward Fido | 04 December 2020

"Today it is celebrated." How pitifully true, Ross. Who can forget the spectacle of the high-stepping, bubbly-sipping liberators celebrating their political accomplishment outside Parliament House?
John RD | 04 December 2020

"In the absence of a Postulator they (saints of the suburb) will never be canonized." Thank you Joseph Quigley. Sadly this is all too true.
(Rev.) Bill Burston | 04 December 2020

Edward is correct. Eugenics are making a comeback. A recent article in The Atlantic, “The Last Children of Down Syndrome” explored prenatal testing in Denmark where a positive DS diagnosis results in 95% of babies being aborted. The article appears to offer justification—to spare hardships or decrease the strain on a universal health care system—for modern-day eugenics and to allay societal concerns about selective breeding. And not only Denmark. In Germany and Britain, 90% of babies diagnosed with Down Syndrome are aborted. In Iceland it’s 100%. So it was comforting to read that in the Diocese of Bourges in France, the Little Sisters Disciples of the Lamb accept people with disabilities. The Mother in charge said, “Our lifestyle, which is a contemplative lifestyle, suits people with Down syndrome very well.”
Ross Howard | 05 December 2020

Thank you Ross Howard for pointing out the death of Judeo-Christian Western Society with such clarity - led, of course, by the "great" USA. We now have a Catholic President in that God-forsaken place taking his photo opportunities at Mass on Sundays who promises to restore US funding of over half a billion dollars per annum to UN abortion programs and to enshrine the fictitious , completely contrived Roe v Wade determination in US law. Hands on heart now everyone and demand that "God love America". The Church generally seems to have been very quiet on the matter and busies itself with mickey mouse tokens such as Plenary Councils which will achieve nothing. The abortion/euthanasia pandemic is the greatest killer this world has ever seen and makes the plague and Covid look like a mild dose of the common cold. I sometimes wonder if we are living not in an advanced civilisation but in the apocalyptic last days.
john frawley | 06 December 2020

Fr Jeremy Davies, a former doctor and long-time exorcist of the Archdiocese of Westminster, had some very chilling things to say about abortion. These echoed what the late Fr Gabriele Amorth said. I think the specific targeting of babies with disabilities a la Denmark in the interests of 'a better world' (whatever that means) is diabolic.
Edward Fido | 06 December 2020


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