Witness: bl. Francis Xavier Seelos – Embracing Poverty for love of the Poor
Fever, chills, vomit, headache, back pain, fatigue, loss of appetite, muscle aches, nausea, liver damage, stomach-ache, mouth bleeding, bleeding eyes, shock, hiccups, delirium, acute renal failure: These are all symptoms of the Yellow Fever virus which killed Blessed Father Francis Xavier Seelos. An outbreak in New Orleans in the autumn of 1867 paralyzed the entire city. The city had a population of 150,000. 50,000 people fell ill and 5,000 died. When Father Francis was ill, the newspapers wrote about his health. And when he died, it became headline news. People started coming to say goodbye to their friend, to say goodbye to the Saint. The poor, black and white, immigrants, all wanted to pray for a moment, standing in a queue of several hours, at the coffin of Father Francis Xavier. But the Redemptorist confreres did not know immediately that the one who died was a saint.
He was born in 1819 in Füssen, Germany, and baptized on the same day. He came from a poor family, his parents were Franciszka and Mang Seelos, and his father was a weaver with a small workshop. The industry started to decline, and so the family became impoverished. They lived in Bavaria, in the foothills of the Alps, were Catholic and deeply religious. Their way of life was like that of a monastery, starting with prayer, and daily Mass whenever possible. They ate breakfast together before work and their other duties, finishing the day with more prayer, dinner and listening to spiritual reading. Significantly, the lives of saints served as spiritual reading, as when young Francis Xavier heard the biography of his patron saint, the missionary Jesuit fired him with zeal. He wanted to be just like him.
The parish priest noticed that he had a zealous altar boy who was very conscientious and quick-witted. After completing primary school, he helped him get into the Augsburg gymnasium. Later, with the intention of becoming a priest, Francis Xavier began studying philosophy and theology at the University of Munich. He was a very sociable young man, liking to tell different stories. When he was in college, he even engaged in fencing and dancing. And when he sang in church, he sang the loudest, to the consternation of his friends.
He changed his mind about his vocation when the missionary magazine “Zion” came into his hands. There he read the letters of missionaries – Redemptorists, who talked about their apostolate in the United States and the plight of immigrants, including those of German origin. Ignited with zeal, he decides to be a missionary who will help the German-speaking population in the USA. He joined the Redemptorists in 1842. A year later, he was on board a ship sailing from France to the USA with three of his confreres. The Redemptorists had been in the United States for 10 years. Fifteen Redemptorists worked in the East Coast, and there was already a novitiate. After his novitiate, on December 2nd 1844, he was ordained a priest.
Fr Seelos started working in Pittsburgh in Saint Philomena’s church. The church building was a former ruined factory, with a small rectory and primitive conditions. Together with Father Jan Neumann (today Saint John Neumann) Father Francis formed a community of saints. Although they had a lot of work, with 45,000 Catholics, and only 21 priests in the city, not to mention the difficult travel conditions, Father Francis Xavier immediately threw himself into the vortex of pastoral work. He preached the Gospel in three languages, German, French and English. At the beginning he spoke broken English, but interestingly, his audience became enthusiastic, even though he did not speak English well. What mattered was that he spoke very simply, as Saint Alphonsus instructed.
He prepared his sermons, but they were a bit different, unconventional. For example, he examined biblical scenes during the sermon, conducting improvised dialogue between biblical characters or even telling anecdotes. Although he prepared his sermons for several hours and wrote them out word for word, he seemed to speak spontaneously. In the middle of a sermon he would take a short break and then speak as if in a prophetic rapture. He was noted for raising his hands up, praising God and saying: “O sinners who do not have the courage to confess your sins, come without fear, I promise to receive you with all gentleness, and if I do not keep my word, I give you the right accuse me of it in the confessional. ”
This is how he encouraged people to confess. Let us not be surprised then that he had huge lines coming to his confessional. People waited for several hours. The line twisted like a snake. Francis was very gentle and consoling: “No one is lost because his sin is too great, but because his trust is too little.” So he encouraged them trust God. He told priests that if people are treated badly, they will turn away from the Church and from God. He also spoke to religious who complained about various situations: “God is watching, God will not let you suffer beyond measure.” As the Redemptorist Student Prefect, he was also innovative. He was in charge of 60 students, and what was strange for the nineteenth century and, of course, for a religious formation, was that he allowed students to play instruments, to swim in the ocean, and to put on school performances. That is why the ministry of formator was taken from him. He summed it up with the words: “I will take care of and devote myself to the tasks of Mary, adoring at the feet of Jesus” as he said a few years earlier, when asked about what he would do if he had less responsibilities.
For 20 years, from 1847 to 1867, he mainly performed missionary duties, preaching the gospel. He was also a lecturer, parish priest and formator. An image of the excessive duties are the words from a letter to his sister when he was the parish priest of Saint Alphonsus in Baltimore: “I have no rest. Finding a free time for spiritual reading or visiting the Blessed Sacrament requires a special effort from me.” He slept fully clothed to be ready to serve immediately, to be ready and vigilant, so that when the call to a sick person came, he could run immediately and go to the person in need. He was noted for not hesitating to rush to the side of a dying prostitute. And when he read a newspaper article titled, “A Religious’ Night Visit to a Prostitute,” he only shrugged his shoulders and said, “Yes, I helped save a soul.” When he saw a man without shoes, he took off his shoes and gave them to him. This is Father Francis Xavier. When he was with the sick, he not only gave them the sacraments, which was of course the most important, but he also would read a book to comfort the sick person, or when seeing a pile of dirty clothes, he took them to a convent to wash them.
He regularly travelled over 100 km when setting out on a pastoral or missionary journey. He was often pelted with stones, beaten, threatened with weapons, and attempts were even made to throw him off the ferry to be drowned. Though his sanctity was very simple, in 1860 he was asked to be bishop of Pittsburgh. However, he did not accept this nomination. His last job was working in the mission team in the years 1863-1866, while he is also a parish priest in New Orleans. His community was already made up of his pupils, for whom he was a tutor. People flocked to him, and as well as serving his parishioners, he traversed the East Coast States, despite the ongoing Civil War.
As we heard at the beginning, his last ministry was that of visiting the sick. Although he didn’t feel very well himself, he went to those in need. When he came back, he probably felt the effects of the disease, as before he reached his room, but had fallen over on the floor, began to weaken and rave. He died on October 4, 1867. While he was going to God for an eternal reward, his confreres were singing his favourite song to Our Lady. He was beatified on April 9, 2000 by Saint John Paul II.
Dear friends! Here in Manville, New Jersey, while the church was closed to public liturgy, we commended the world every day through the intercession of Blessed Father Francis Xavier Seelos. Listening to the story of blessed Francis Xavier I encourage you, dear friends, to pray for an end to the pandemic. Let the world change its attitude towards God, towards other people, precisely through the intercession of Blessed Father Francis Xavier.
Dear friends! At the end, in the spirit of the blessed (perhaps soon saint) Father Francis Xavier, a little anecdote. At the day of the beatification on April 9, 2000, we got pictures of the new Beati. My confreres looked at the picture, they looked at me and said, “Oh! You look like the beatus!” Dear ones, when we listen to this story about the blessed, we don’t want to be similar to them just in appearance, but most of all we want to be similar internally, so, to love Jesus, to love others, and to be as zealous as Blessed Father Francis Xavier, a Redemptorist, a missionary.
Autor: Marcin Gacek CSsR
Translation: Dominik Król CSsR