Who’s tougher, Xavier or Gonzaga?
I’m not talking about the two sports teams that will square off in the NCAA tournament. Those players are tough, granted. But the really courageous, gritty heroes are the two guys that the schools were named after: Francis Xavier and Aloysius Gonzaga, two Jesuit saints of the 16th century.
Francis Xavier, one of the Jesuit founders, packed up his life on 48 hours’ notice to head to the Far East as a missionary. He bobbed across the oceans in a leaky ship that was about the size of a modern subway car; he likely wobbled around the deck with gums swollen from scurvy. Navigational tools were rudimentary, at best: his journey, planned for six months, ended up taking a year.
Well, he survived. That’s better than many who undertook the voyage in subsequent years, when as many as a third of Jesuits who tried to follow Xavier to Asia ended up dying en route.
Xavier was among the earliest European visitors to India and Japan, and he died on the outskirts of China. Unlike many Europeans of his era, he actually took an interest in the people and cultures he encountered, struggling to communicate with his Asian hosts (the first dictionaries of Asian languages where far off in the future). After he died, he quickly became an icon of courageous dedication; he’s commemorated nowadays as the namesake for dozens of schools on multiple continents, including the Xavier University that will play Gonzaga.
Which is named for another valiant Jesuit hero. Aloysius Gonzaga was born in 1568, a couple of generations after Xavier, but died before reaching the age of 25. A horrific plague swept Rome in 1591. People who had the means to do so got out of the city to protect themselves.
Not Gonzaga: he instead went out into the streets to tend to plague victims, sometimes carrying the afflicted to hospital on his back. He knew he was putting himself at enormous personal risk, not unlike tending to Ebola patients without wearing any protective garb. Predictably, Gonzaga himself contracted plague and soon after died.
I hope that the Xavier-Gonzaga game is close and hard-fought and filled with heroic efforts on both sides. But you know something? The real heroes are the guys those two schools were named after.
Chris Lowney is author of Everyone Leads: How To Revitalize the Catholic Church