The Novena of Grace in honor of St. Francis Xavier (March 4-12) is upon us once again (for the complete novena prayers click here). Nine days of prayer and renewal commemorate the canonization of St. Francis, who was raised to the honors of the altar (along with Sts. Ignatius Loyola, Philip Neri, Teresa of Avila and Isidro of Madrid) on March 12, 1622. The Novena itself seems to date back to 1634, when the intercession of St. Francis obtained the instantaneous cure of one Fr. Marcello Mastrilli from a “grave legion of his brain.” Fr. Mastrilli went on to suffer martyrdom in Japan.
The Novena of Grace has been powerful for obtaining miracles and conversions ever since. However, even as I write the sentence, I am aware that that I am not saying something obvious to all. Everything about the Novena of Grace seems to stand in need of some justification nowadays. Why nine days? Why these dates and not others? Why St. Francis Xavier? There are certainly many who still live in the “first innocence” of Catholic devotional life, who have been marked since youth by the rhythm of annual novenas and the cadence of litanies and have never found them troubling. However, there are probably more who have had to think through these practices back to a sort of “second innocence.” I count myself in the second group.
Yet I have come to love the Novena of Grace because it represents an attempt to take the Incarnation seriously. The devotion embraces not just the idea of the God-man, but His particular life story. The nine days of any novena, for example, recall the days between Ascension and Pentecost (by exclusive reckoning). These could have easily numbered eight or ten, but they were nine. In the same way, the Passion and Resurrection could have happened on any days of the week, but they happened on Friday and Sunday, and these have set the rhythm of our fasting and feasting ever since. A little bit of the dust of first-century Palestine still clings to Christian devotions practiced as far away as India and Japan.
And if these traces of Christ’s personal story remain perennially (or even eternally) significant for us, the same must be true of St. Francis Xavier’s. Significant dates in the latter’s ecclesial career, such as his canonization on March 12, become binding on those who are grateful for him. It’s a universal human principle: occasions of grateful remembrance, such as birthdays and anniversaries, are to be celebrated according to the timing of the gift, not according to the convenience of those who have received it.
Finally, we pray through the intercession of St. Francis—as opposed to any other dead person—out of the same incarnational logic. Christ redeemed the whole Francis Xavier—his body, his friendships, and his personal mission. Even in heaven he has a spiritual profile. And so we cultivate his friendship even now, knowing that his mission in the Church has not been sloughed off with the “mortal coil”. We entrust our various and sundry petitions to him now because his charity showed such universal scope on earth. And yet, we also designate St. Francis to be the particular patron of the missions because his life took a particular shape: St. Francis was a missionary. Devotion to St. Francis thus understands that we are not saved as an anonymous collective. We will have faces in heaven as well.
Even “simple” devotions like the Novena of Grace inculcate a sophisticated theology of time and eternity—although perhaps mostly at the level of instinct and sensibility. And in this way they indicate a distinctively Christian way of taking earthly life seriously, one that allows us neither to neglect our duties nor to shoulder our burdens alone. They instill a spirit that is at once responsible and uncramped, diligent and joyful, urgent and free. This was certainly the spirit of St. Francis Xavier.
His joyous words, written to his Jesuit brothers while under the burden of a crushing and lonely apostolate in Goa, illustrate this spirit as well as any I’ve seen:
My recreation out here, dearest Brothers, is to think of you constantly, recalling the times when by God’s good mercy I came to know you and have your intimacy. I feel keenly how much, through my own fault, I then missed profiting far more from the wisdom which God had committed to you. May He have mercy on me and grant me through your faithful prayers to perceive and grieve for the infinite number of my sins, as well as the strength to hold on my way among the heathen. I am so grateful to Him, and to you, too, dearest Brothers … So I end by praying that as in His mercy He brought us together, and then for His service separated us so far from one another, He may again unite us in His holy glory.