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Incorrupt Body of St. Francis Xavier

Incorrupt Body of St. Francis Xavier

Source: LPGG (Lonely Planet Goa Guide)

"Goa's patron saint, Francis Xavier, was born into a wealthy and aristocratic family in Navarre, Spain, on 7 April 1506. A brilliant scholar, he studied at Paris University where he met and became friends with Ignatius Loyola and thus came to the turning point in his life. Together with five others, in August 1534, they formed the Society of Jesus and almost immediately hatched plans to travel to the Holy Land, where they hoped to convert the Muslims. Although the plans fell through, there was plenty to be done in other areas, and when missionaries were requested for the eastern empire, it seemed an ideal opportunity.

In April 1541 Xavier sailed from Portugal, arriving in Goa in May 1542. After a brief spell teaching, he commenced his travels, which took him to, among other places, Ceylon, Malacca and Japan. In February 1552 he persuaded the viceroy to allow him to plan an embassy to China, a mission which his death cut short. He died on the island of Sancian, off the Chinese coast, on 2 December 1552.

After his death his servant is said to have emptied four sacks of quicklime into his coffin to consume his flesh in case the order came to return the remains to Goa. Two months later, the body was transferred to Malacca, where it was observed to be still in perfect condition - refusing to rot despite the quicklime. The following year, Francis Xavier's body was returned to Goa, where the people were declaring its preservation a miracle.

The church was slower to acknowledge it, requiring a medical examination to establish that the body had not been embalmed. This was performed in 1556 by the viceroy's physician, who declared that all the internal organs were still intact and that no preservative agents had been used. He noticed a small wound in the chest and asked two Jesuits to put their fingers into it. He noted, 'When they withdrew them, they were covered with the blood which I smelt and found to be absolutely untainted.'

It was not until 1622 that canonisation took place. By then, holy relic hunters had started work on the 'incorrupt body'. In 1614 the right arm was removed and divided between Jesuits in Japan and Kome, and by 1636 parts of one shoulder blade and all the internal organs had been scattered through Southeast Asia. By the end of the 17th century the body was in an advanced state of desiccation and Ihe miracle appeared to be over. The Jesuits decided to enclose the corpse in a glass coffin out of view, ,md it was not until the mid-19th century that the current cycle of 10-yearly expositions began.

Great St Francis Body Expo Experience

The biggest event in Christian Goa happens only once every 10 years. It's the Exposition of St Francis Xavier, when the glass coffin containing the body of Goa's patron saint is brought out so that the masses can take a peak at his 450-year-old remains.

The Exposition takes place around the saint's feast day - 3 December - with the next event taking place in 2004. Lonely Planet author Bryn Thomas joined the crowds for the last Exposition in 1994. This is his account.

2 December
10.15pm We're squeezed into the back of the last bus of the day from Panaji to Old Goa. The bus is heavily garlanded, packed to bursting with good-natured pilgrims and the air is strongly scented with a combination of feni (Goa's favourite alcoholic drink) and cordite. More firecrackers are detonated and the bus lurches off. It's a very slow journey - many people are walking the 9km to Old Goa, some singing as they go. Horn screeching, eventually we arrive.
There are crowds of people, and a joyful, carnival atmosphere. The main churches are floodlit and there's a fair going on near the basilica. Rows of stalls sell everything from luminous green statues of St Francis to tubes of Colgate toothpaste. More attractive are the paper hats decorated with vividly coloured chicken feathers. One stall sells little wax models of human arms, legs and other pieces of anatomy. Apparently, you simply purchase the part of the body that corresponds to your malady and offer it up to St FX for an instant cure.
To the side is a little hand-operated wooden Ferris wheel, a distinctly dodgy fairground attraction. At least the people on it don't have far to fall when the whole thing collapses. The entire scene is in a time warp; attending a festival in the Middle Ages at one of the great European cathedrals must have felt something like this.

3 December
1.30am Apart from little groups of men playing cards by the light of the street lamps, most people have turned in for the night. In the main square there's row upon row of blanketed bodies; we unroll our sleeping bags on the steps of Se Cathedral. Not the best night for it as the fleas are bad and we're woken at 4am by the huge Golden Bell pealing above us. We lie there for the next hour listening to the familiar sounds of the Indian dawn (hawking, spitting and copious expectorations) while we watch the glorious sunrise.

10.15am High Mass is an impressive affair, with thousands of communicants crowded into the open-sided marquee set up outside Bom Jesus, and many more outside. No less than nine bishops Inside the basilica the layout is simple but grand. The original vaulted ceiling has now been replaced by a simple wooden one. To the left of the door as you enter the basilica is a statue of St Francis Xavier, but yet again the huge and ornate gilded reredos that stretches from floor to ceiling behind the altar takes pride of place. The baroque detail of the ornament contrasts strongly with the classical, plain layout of the cathedral itself. As in the Church of St Francis of Assisi, the symbolism of the figures depicted is important. The reredos shows St Ignatius Loyola standing in protection over a tiny figure of the Christ child. St Ignatius' eyes are raised to a huge gilded sun above his head on which the Jesuit symbol 'IHS' is emblazoned. Above the sun is a depiction of the Trinity.
To the right of the altar, however, is the highlight for the vast majority of visitors, for it is here that the body of St Francis Xavier is kept. The body was moved into the church in 1622 and in the late 1680s the Duke of Tuscany financed the building of the marble catafalque. In exchange for his contribution he was given the pillow on which St Francis' head had been resting. He engaged the Florentine sculptor Giovanni Batista Foggini and finally, after 10 years' work, the three-tiered structure was erected in the basilica in 1698. The catafalque is constructed of jasper and marble. On each side of the second tier are bronze plaques on which are depicted, in relief, scenes from the saint's life. Atop the structure is the casket, which was designed by an Italian Jesuit

This is the most important Christian festival on the subcontinent. The singing, in Konkani and English, is very good, and the choirs are accompanied by an orchestra and a band. After the service we chat to an elderly Goan who's lived in South India for the last 50 years and has just returned. 'Are you wanting to see Dead Body?' he inquires with a waggle of his head. We join the line.

1pm We've been in the queue outside Se Cathedral for half an hour and the sun beats down mercilessly. Reaching the cool shadows of the massive building is a welcome relief. At the top of the aisle lies the glass coffin and as we approach the crowd becomes more impatient. People take out their Bibles, rosaries and even postcards of the saint to touch the foot of his coffin with, drawing on his sanctity. Now we're right beside him. Four hundred and forty-two years on, there really isn't much left of poor Francis. Half his skull is showing and his face is just a mass of shrivelled, parchmentlike skin. Little black tufts of hair cling mosslike to the top of his head. His left ear is missing, and his right is just a small brown flap. His right arm has been sent to the Jesuits in Japan and his left hand, a decomposed ghoulish claw, rests on his chest. Just one toe remains on the right foot; three others have dropped off down the ages and the fourth was bitten off in 1554 by a mad Portuguese woman desperate for a relic. It is said that under those magnificent vestments there's little more than bare bones. The miracle of the incorrupt body is indeed over.

2.30pm We're ejected into the bright sunlight by the surging crowd. I don't feel particularly uplifted by the experience of seeing the saint's remains. A Jesuit priest comes up to talk to me. Perhaps sensing my disappointment he says, 'Remember Lazarus. He was miraculously raised from the dead but eventually he died. It's true, the miracle is over for St Francis, too, but that doesn't make it less of a miracle.'Miracle or not, simply being among the crowds of pilgrims is a tremendous experience.

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