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St. Francis Xavier: His Life and Times

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St. Francis Xavier or Goencho Saib as he is popularly known holds a special place in the hearts of Goans for over 400 years. Now on the eve of the exposition of his Holy Body let?s go back in time and reintroduce ourselves to the life and the times of this extraordinary Jesuit Saint.

Francis Xavier or Xavier as he was fondly known was born to an aristocratic and wealthy Basque family in the Castle of Xavier near Sanguesa, in Navarre, Northern Spain on 7 April, 1506. In 1525, after having completed a preliminary course of studies in Spain, Francis Xavier went to Paris, where he entered the Coll ge de Sainte – Barbe. In his early days as a student he spent his allowance enjoying the good things in life including gambling.

Around 1529, while in his final year of college, a chance admission of a new and mature student to the college brought him a new room mate, Ignatius Loyola. Ignatius was 15 yrs older than Xavier and had a similar up – bringing, but had decided to pursue a spiritual life. It was Ignatius’s influence and guidance that brought about a religious and spiritual awakening in young Xavier; an influence that changed the course and direction of his life forever.

On August 15, 1534, in a small chapel at “Montmartre”, the six followers of Ignatius Loyola took the now “famous vow of Montmartre”, a vow of chastity, charity and vowed to devote their life to the spread of the Gospel and Christianity. The seven being Favre, Xavier, Lainez, Salmern, Rodriguez, and Bobadilla and Ignatius.

Soon after, following completion of his studies in Paris, Xavier left with his companions for Venice on 15 November, 1536. Their then plan was to go to Jerusalem and spread the word of God and the Gospel in the Holy Land. While at Venice, Xavier began caring for the sick in the hospitals. On 24 June, 1537, he became ordained as a priest with St. Ignatius. The following year he went to Rome, and with Ignatius, seriously began thinking of creating the foundation of the Society of Jesus with his other friends. This was met with some opposition by the establishment then. A year later, Xavier was appointed by the King of Portugal to evangelize the people of the East Indies. He left Rome 16 March, 1540, and reached Lisbon ready to travel to the Indies.

On 7 April, 1541 (his 35th birthday), he sailed for India and landed at Goa on 6 May,1542. The first five months he spent in preaching and ministering to the sick in the hospitals. It has been said that he would walk the streets ringing a little bell and inviting the children to hear the word of God. When a sufficient number had gathered, he would take them to a nearby church and explain catechism to them. It was while in Goa that he learned that a papal decree of 27th September 1543 had finally approved the creation of the Society of Jesus. Ignatius Loyola had been elected the first General of the order in April 1541. Xavier then devoted the next three years preaching to the people of Western India, converting a few thousand to Christianity in the process.

In April, 1552, he left Goa for China on the ship “Santa Cruz”. His first stop over was at Malacca. In the autumn of the same year he finally arrived in a Portuguese vessel at the small island of Sancian off the coast of China. At that time China was closed to foreigners and trade with China was banned. There was however some illegal operations going on from Macao, an island close to Sancian off mainland China. While planning the best means for reaching the mainland, he took seriously ill and died soon after on December 3 1552.

He died in a wooden hut built for him by his ship crew. His companion present at his final moments was a Chinese convert Anthony who had accompanied him from Goa. Anthony organized a simple burial on Sancian and had the coffin filled with lime “to consume the flesh and leave only the bare bones in case anyone should come later on and take the body back to India”. His ship, the “Santa Cruz? remained on Sancian till February of the following year. While the ship was just about to leave Sancian, Anthony reportedly asked the ship’s Captain if the body of Xavier should be inspected to see if it had already decayed as it was over three months since his burial. A seaman then was then sent to check and he found the body intact. It had not decayed at all.

Thus began the saga of the “incorruptibility of his body”. It was then decided to take the body back to Malacca. The Ship arrived at Malacca on March 22 1553. The body was buried at Malacca in a rock cut grave and filled with earth. Five months later it is said that a dear friend of Xavier wished to see his body one last time and then reportedly dug out his body in the middle of the night. He too found the body intact. Deciding that it was a miracle, he secretly hid it in a coffin. This news of the “Incorrupt body of Francis Xavier” finally reached the Viceroy of Goa and he ordered its return to Goa.

The ship carrying his body made its final voyage to Goa and arrived at Goa on 16 March 1554. It was taken in a procession to the College of St Paul where it was on display for three days. The viceroy Dom Alfonso de Noronha ordered an official medical examination of the body. Dr. Cosmas Saraiva, his personal physician and Dr. Ambrosio Ribeiro, the Vicar-General examined the body and so did Brother Antonio Dias.

Dr. Cosmas Saraiva writes “I felt and pressed all the members of the body with my fingers, and paid special attention to the abdominal region and made certain that the intestines were in their natural position. There had been no embalming of any kind nor had any artificial preservative agents been used. I observed a wound in the left side near the heart and asked two of the Society who were with me to put their fingers into it. When they withdrew them they were covered with blood which I smelt and found to be absolutely untainted. The limbs and other part of the body were entire and clothed in their flesh in such a way that, according to the laws of medicine, they could not possibly have been so preserved by any natural or artificial means, seeing that Father Francis had been dead for a year and a half and buried for a year.”

Dr Ambrosio Ribeiro writes “I felt the body with my own hands from the feet up the knees and about all the other parts of the body. I certify that in all these parts the flesh was entire, covered with its natural skin and humidity without any corruption. On the left leg a little above the knee on the exterior there is a little cut or wound, a finger length, which looked like a hit. All round the wound there oozed out a streak of blood gone black. And much above in the left side near the heart there is a small hole which looked like a hit. Through it I inserted my fingers deep as I could and found it hollow. Only inside I felt some small bits which seemed to me like pieces of intestines dried up due to the long times the body lay in the grave. But I smelt no corruption although I put my face quite close to the body. The head rested on a small Chinese damask pillow leaving on it below the neck some thing like a stain of blood similar to that on the leg, faded in color and turned black. Brother Antonio Dias writes ” To others who come to see the body, they show only the hands and feet and a part of the legs and arms. But I, who am a true witness, saw the body enshrouded and with priests and brothers wrapped it up in another sheet. I assure you that it emitted a wonderful and sweet odor. I myself put one of my hands into the stomach and I found it full because they had not drawn out the intestines at his death or afterwards, and what I found there was all like coagulated blood, smooth and soft, which looked reddish and smelt sweet.

Both the above texts are signed and dated 1556, more than two and half years after the examination – the one of Saraiva on November 18 and the other on December 1, 1556.
In 1613 the relics were moved to the Professed House of the Jesuits. Francis Xavier was canonized with St. Ignatius in 1622. He has since then been known as St Francis Xavier, and became Goa’s Patron Saint or “Goencho Saib”. His feast is celebrated every year on the 3rd of December.

After canonization his body was moved to the north transept of the church and later moved to its present location following the construction of the mausoleum. It was placed in a silver casket made by local Goan artisans and was put on permanent display. This silver casket which is placed at the top serves as a religious observance. If you count, there are 7 panels on the casket, each of which has got 2 plates, one over the other which are carved with important scenes from the life of St. Francis Xavier. A three tiered catafalque was constructed in the 1680’s and it was consecrated in 1698. All along, the body was continuously being handled by devout followers as it was on display all the time. It was also subject to a series of planned and unplanned mutilations. In 1614 by order of Claudius Acquaviva, then General of the Society of Jesus, the right arm was severed at the elbow and conveyed to Rome. In 1619, rest of the arm was severed and sent to Japan, pieces of the shoulder blade to Cochin, Malacca and Macao. In 1636 the internal organs were also distributed. By 1700 the body had deteriorated and it was then decided to keep the coffin locked. Some exceptions were however made.

In 1759, with the change in the political climate in Europe, the order of Jesuits was banned and the Jesuits were evicted from their premises and expelled. The control of both the Church of Bom Jesus and the body was transferred to the Archdiocese of Goa. From 1878 onwards it became tradition to allow an Exposition of the Relics once every 10 years.

Below are some of the details of the earlier expositions:

10th  February 1782 to 12th February 1782
3rd December 1859 to 8th January 1860
3rd December to 6th January 1879
3rd December  18990 to 1st January 1891
7th December to 10th December 1900
26th November  to 28th December 1910
3rd December  1922 to 7th January 1923
3rd December 1931 to 10th January 1932
6th May 1942 to 17th May 1942
3rd December 1952 to 6th January 1953
14th December 1961 to 31st December 1961
24th November 1964 to 6th January 1965
23rd November 1974 to 13th January 1975
21st November 1984 to 13th January 1985
November 23rd 1994 to January 7th 1995
November 21st 2004 to January 2nd 2005

The body is now referred to as the “Sacred Relics” and continues to be displayed during an “Exposition” in the Basilica de Bom Jesus in Old Goa. It can be seen in the chapel, as one turns right, at the main altar of the basilica. The casket has a glass window through which, the head is clearly seen. Millions of people of all faiths and countries have seen the body. The body has gradually lost some of its moisture and this exposition is most likely the last one. Many who visit the Basilica of Bom Jesus and the Se Cathedral across the street are overcome by the deep spirituality of the place.

Compiled by Melanie, Muscat
Photo Courtesy: Goa-World


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