My Inside Glimpse of Bom Jesus Basilica in Heart of the ‘Rome of the East’


Every time I visit Goa, I make it a point to visit Bom Jesus Basilica, located in the historic town of Old Goa. The Basilica is so calm and quiet, you can sit inside the church for long hours and feel the serenity. Against the hustle and bustle of Goa, this is such a welcome difference. Both the churches are marvels in architecture and you have to visit them if you are in Goa. During my visit to this Basilica on 28 October, I had the greatest privilege to meet Fr Savio Barretto, the Rector of the Basilica; and also Professed House of the Jesuits, which is located very adjacent to the Basilica. Fr Savio was very kind enough to show me around the Basilica, and also some restricted places inside the Basilica  where visitors are not allowed-Wow, I felt like a VIP !


 


The Basilica of Bom Jesus is an impressive structure, both inside and out, being constructed of porous red stone found locally, which has allowed algae and small plants to grow all over the outside of the structure. Inside it is equally impressive, and a functioning church. The Basilica is famous as the final resting place for St. Francis Xavier, who was a prominent missionary in this part of the world. Don’t forget to have tea/soft drinks in the small cafe hut by the side of the church. You will love to sit under the tree and sip a cup of hot tea/coffee or a soft drink, admiring the church!


 


 


 


 


 


This 400-year-old cathedral and World Heritage site is also surrounded by many other large churches and cathedrals, which made me wonder how they were all sustainable, given the size of the local population. Nevertheless, it’s worth a visit to this Basilica, and from there take a walking tour to the many other churches nearby, including the ruins of the St Augustine church, one of several other churches that enjoy the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. Most of these churches have a somewhat sad history in that they were built on the site of Hindu temples destroyed by the Portuguese. Other monuments of interest in this area include the Convent of St. Monica, India’s largest nunnery, and Viceroy’s Arch, built by Viceroy Francisco da Gama, the grandson of Vasco da Gama. There are also many other historical monuments, churches and ruins scattered throughout the town which are well worth visiting.
 
Me and Fr Barretto had a few minutes chat over a cup of freshly brewed coffee. Having learnt that the officials of Basilica of Bom Jesus in Goa are planning to invite Pope Francis for the 2014 exposition of pioneering Jesuit St. Francis Xavier, I asked Fr Barretto the progress of that plan. He said, “The chances of the first Jesuit pontiff arriving in the beach tourism oriented state are “healthy”. Basilica officials have received many enquiries about inviting pope to the event. We have already called and invited the Pope, and at the same time requested the central government to formally make a request to the Vatican city also. The chances of Pope Francis coming for the exposition look good because he may not even need an invitation to visit the resting place of his fellow Jesuit brother. So until we get a confirmation from the Vatican and Central government we have to keep our fingers crossed-but I am very much confident it would be done deal of Pope visiting our Church next November or December”.


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 



I also learned from the security personnel that last year, the church authorities had put up signboards and sought help from guides to ensure that tourists were appropriately dressed when they visited the baroque-style church. But I still saw a few Europeans indecently dressed while inside the church. When I asked Fr Barretto on this issue, he replied, “The “indecently” dressed visitors to our Basilica -a must-do on most tourists’ itineraries, will now be offered shawls to cover themselves up before they enter the shrine. We had been receiving complaints that tourists were not dressing properly for the church. Many people felt offended by it. We were forced to take this step. However, the efforts did not make much difference”
 
“People simply ignored the signboards. Now we have volunteers who will ask those inappropriately dressed to drape shawls, which we will provide. The shawls and stoles will have to be returned to the volunteers after the tour to the Church is over. The grouse over “inappropriate” clothing was common both with women and men. Even men come here wearing beachwear. They would have to wear the shawl too. Some hesitate to wear the shawls and slowly sneak inside, for which we can’t do much about it. We consider those as simply ignorant people. Many a times tourists get offended by our rules, but they should realize the Church is a place of worship and not a site of beach party” he added.


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


St. Francis Xavier, who hailed from Navarra in the Basque region of Spain, heralded Christianity in several part of Asia, after he arrived in Goa, the then Portuguese capital in 1542. After his death in 1552 in Shangchuan, China, his body was first ferried to Malacca in Malaysia, and later stored in 1553 in the grand Basilica of Bom Jesus. Believers regard it as a miracle that the body has survived for nearly 500 years, while skeptics have historically argued that the mortal remains of the saint have been embalmed to ensure its survival.
 
The Basilica of Bom Jesus is more than 408 years old and is open to the public everyday. The body of St. Francis Xavier is kept in a well-decorated casket, which can be seen in the photographs in this article. During the ‘exposition’ event the relics of the saint, kept in a silver casket elevated inside the Basilica, are exposed or being brought to ground level. The exposition generally happens every ten years and the last was held in 2004 December for about one month. The next is due in November 2014. Every year, more than a million believers throng the church complex in Old Goa, located a short distance from here. Catholics account for nearly 25 percent of the state’s population of 1.4 million.
 
Bom Jesus Basilica – A Brief History:
 
Bom Jesus Basilica is peaceful place with well maintained garden and ancient Portuguese architecture. Regain your faith and make a wish. This is a favourite of travellers going to Goa. One of the main attraction for kids apart from the architecture would be lighting a candle and making a wish. It is said that if you make a wish with a true heart your wish comes true. Candles are available outside the church for sale.
 
The Bom Jesus Basilica, perhaps Goa’s most famous church and among the most revered by Christians worldwide, is partially in ruins but still a model of simplicity and elegance, and a fine example of Jesuit architecture. This is the only church in Old Goa, which is not plastered on the outside, the lime plaster having been stripped off by a zealous Portuguese conservationist in 1950.
 
Located at Old Goa, 10 kilometres east of Panjim, the capital city of Goa, the Bom Jesus Basilica is a World Heritage Monument. The foundation stone of this remarkably large church was laid on 24 November 1594 and the church was consecrated by Fr. Alexia de Menezes, the Archbishop of Goa and Primate of India consecrated it when it was completed on 15 May 1605. In 1946 it was raised to the status of a minor Basilica. The Order of Jesuits was suppressed in 1759 and its property confiscated by the Portuguese State. The church was, however allowed to continue services.
 
This magnificent edifice stands as a superb example of Baroque architecture in Goa. The church is called “Bom Jesus” meaning ‘good Jesus’ or ‘infant Jesus’ to whom it is dedicated. The facade has on it, at the top, the letters, “HIS” which are the first three letters of Jesus in Greek. The imposing facade built out of black granite in an exquisite combination of the Doric, Corinthian and composite styles, is remarkable for its simplicity. It measures 183 ft in length,55 ft in breath, and 61 ft in height. The main altar is 54 ft high and 30 ft broad. The pillars and detail are carved from basalt which was brought from Bassein, some 300 kms away. The interior of the church is built in Mosaico-Corinthian style and is remarkable for its charming simplicity.
 
The roof was originally tiled. The church is cruciform on plan. The flying buttresses on the northern side of the church are recent additions. A single-storied structure adjoining the church on its southern wing connects it with the Professed House. The three-storied facade of the Church shows Ionic, Doric and Corinthian Orders, and has a main entrance flanked by two smaller ones, each having Corinthian columns supporting a pediment. There are two chapels, a main altar and a sacristy besides a choir inside the Church itself. There is a belfry is at the back.
 
As one enters, beneath the choir, to the right is an altar of St. Anthony and to the left is an exceedingly well-carved wooden statue of St. Francis Xavier. In the middle of the nave on the northern wall is the cenotaph of the benefactor of this church, Dom Jeronimo Mascarenhas, the Captain of Cochin, who died in 1593, bequeathing the resources out of which this church was built. The two columns supporting the choir bear slabs inscribed in Portuguese and Latin the dates of beginning of construction and the consecration.
 
Opposite the cenotaph, projecting on the southern wall is a profusely carved wooden pulpit with a canopy on top. The pulpit has on its three sides the figures of Jesus, the four evangelists and four doctors of the church. The bottom of the pulpit depicts seven figures as though supporting it. A projecting gallery, which was intended for the use of dignitaries on solemn occasions, runs along the two longer sides of the Church.
 
The main altar at the end of the nave is flanked by two decorated altars in the transept, one dedicated to Our Lady of Hope and the other to St. Michael. The richly gilded main altar has the figure of infant Jesus and above it is a large statue of St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the order of Jesuits, gazing with fervour at a medallion on which is inscribed “HIS”. Above the medallion, the Holy trinity – the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are depicted. In the transept on the northern side is the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament.
 
On the southern side in the transept is a chapel with gilded twisted columns and floral decorations of wood, where the sacred relics of the body of St. Francis Xavier are kept. The interior of this chapel is richly adorned with wooden carvings and paintings, depicting the scenes from the life of the Saint. A beautiful silver statue is kept in front of the casket. The silver casket, which serves as a reliquary containing the sacred relics of the body of St. Francis Xavier, is exquisitely carved, and was once studded with precious stones. The casket is divided on each side into seven panels, each of which has two plates representing in relief important incidents in the life of the saint.
 
Adjoining the Chapel of St. Francis Xavier is a corridor that leads to the sacristy, entered through an exquisitely carved wooden door. It is an oblong vaulted structure with an apse at the end. Alongside the walls are kept the portraits of various saints above delicately carved chest of drawers. In the altar at the apse in an iron chest containing a golden rose blessed by the Pope Pius XII and gifted to this city in 1953. At the foot of the altar is the grave of the founder of the vestry, Balthazar da Veiga who died in 1659. A painting giving a fair idea as to the state of the body of St. Xavier about a hundred years ago is displayed near the altar.
 
Inside the basilica the layout is simple but grand. A simple wooden one has now replaced the original vaulted ceiling. To the left of the door as you enter the basilica is a statue of St. Francis Xavier, but the visitor’s attention is drawn to the huge and ornate gilded reredos which stretches from floor to ceiling behind the altar. On the upper level, overlooking the tomb, is the Bom Jesus Basilica Art Gallery, containing the works of the Goan surrealist painter, Dom Martin. Author and fellow Jesuit Anthony De Mello was also from Goa and does mention the basilica in his writings.
 
The Professed House of the Jesuits:
 
The Professed House of the Jesuits located next door to the Basilica is a two storey laterite building covered with lime plaster which actually predates the Basilica, having been completed in 1585 despite strong opposition to the Jesuits. Jesuit missions to the eastern regions were planed and organised from here. Completed in 1589 under the able supervision of Br. Domingos Fernandes, the Cassa Professa or the “Professed House” according to Jesuit law is one which is intended for the exercise of the ministries of the Society and should be conspicuous for the exactness of the Jesuit way of life.
 
There is an extremely interesting story behind the construction of the Church. The Jesuits faced strong opposition from the Senate, the Santa Cassa da Misericordiaa and the Franciscans for their planned construction in the spacious square called Terreiro dos Gallos. However on the night preceding the day on which they were to be legally restrained from building the site, two fathers and one brother converted a small house into a temporary church and on its door inscribed the word ‘JESUS’.
 
The next morning the Church was thrown open and a bell rang to call the surprised people from the neighbourhood to celebrate mass. After that the opponents were never able to dislodge the occupants. The ravages of time and the raging flames of the great fire in 1663 destroyed some of its lengthy corridors and spacious apartments but it was rebuilt in 1783. One more storey on the top was demolished between 1886 and 1887. Today there’s a modern art gallery attached to the Basilica.


Author: Alfie DSouza- Illinois