02 Dec 2018 06:06am IST
Alexandre Moniz Barbosa
Groups of pilgrims, reciting the rosary and singing hymns make a nightly pilgrimage to Old Goa throughout the novena in preparation for the feast
Returning late from work, as most journalists do, often the only living creatures on deserted stretches of streets are stray dogs that take a delight at running and barking after the vehicles. But there has been a change in the past few nights. The streets also have groups of people purposefully walking all in one direction. No, it is not the groups of delegates that have emerged from the last screening of the International Film Festival of India, those hurry to their vehicles or to their hotels, these are groups of people on lonely stretches of roads and highways, where one wouldn’t normally see people walking in the dead of night. These are groups of pilgrims, reciting the rosary and singing hymns and making the pilgrimage to Old Goa.
While the lakhs of people who visit Old Goa during the nine days of the novena and on the feast day, usually drive or ride their vehicles or take some form of public transport to the Basilica of Bom Jesus, where the novenas are currently taking place in preparation for the feast of St Francis Xavier, there are still others who walk step by slow step from their home, wherever it may be, to the village on the banks of the River Mandovi, which was once the capital of Goa. The groups of pilgrims can be seen walking from Bardez, Salcete, Ilhas, crossing the bridges over the River Mandovi and the River Zuari, easily distinguished by the steady pace they keep as they stride forward in their quest to meet the Goycho Saib in Old Goa, and pour forth their troubles to him, seeking his intercession to fulfill their needs and desires, whether they be temporal or spiritual. And walking, for the many who do it, is one form of display of faith and penance, by which they hope to attain his blessings.
While walking pilgrimages do abound in the Catholic faith, the only popular one in Goa is this special journey that people make to Old Goa in late November and early December. There is no other such in the State, and it brings not just people from Goa, but there are even pilgrims who come from Maharashtra to Goa every year for the feast, and they arrive on foot. If the pilgrims from Goa walk a few hours during the night hours to reach Old Goa for the early morning mass, these from Maharashtra walk a hundred kilometers or more over a few days to reach at the feet of St Francis Xavier on the eve of the feast and stay on for the next day too.
And, it’s this night, the intervening night of December 2 to December 3 on which Old Goa will not go to sleep. Not all of the 1.5 lakh people who go to the former capital of Goa for the feast of the Saint will travel there on Monday. A large number will go this Sunday evening, as to the pilgrims from outside the State, attend the last novena mass and then spend the night under the starlit sky, sleeping on the pavements and the lawns, under blankets to ward off the chill in the air, but already dressed for the festive mass they will be attending the next morning. They will awaken before dawn, participate in one of the early masses and then return to their homes, making way for the other devotees to come in and take their place.
Tomorrow, December 3, Goa takes a holiday to celebrate the feast of St Francis Xavier. It’s the only public holiday that the State gets for the feast of a Catholic saint. It is the day when almost a tenth of the population of the State, whatever faith they may come from, would spend some time in Old Goa attending mass, venerating the sacred relics or for some just strolling around in the fair that comes up every year on the streets outside the Basilica. There is a certain kind of magnetism, a strong attraction, that this Basque missionary, who lived in the 16th century, has for the people in the State, and most don’t hesitate to display their faith to him. This can be vouched for by the number of masses that are held during the novenas and on the feast day.
There are 11 masses on the feast day, the first at 4 am, the last at 6 pm. There are eight masses on every novena day, and then on some days there are the language masses that add to the total number. St Francis Xavier’s appeal extends to all, for it is not just in Konkani that the masses are held, but there is a daily English mass, and then masses in Tamil, Malayalam, Hindi, Telugu, Marathi, Kannada, and in French, Italian, Portuguese and in the language of the Saint too – Spanish. The last one is on the feast day. It is not just Goans who come to meet the Saint at his mausoleum, but also people from other states and countries. There are pilgrimages from Portugal and Pakistan almost every year.
If in his lifetime the Jesuit priest attracted people to his side by the ringing of the bell in the then Cidade de Goa, the Goycho Saib still gets the crowd to Old Goa and now he does not need to ring a bell. The call emerges from within the people, a manifestation of their faith in the Saint, and in his powers to grant them their wishes. They come, attend mass, the queue up to venerate the relics, stand prayerfully at his mausoleum, piously touch the Italian marble of which it is made and atop which rest the relics of the saint, and then emerge out of the Basilica. Some make the journey to Old Goa every single day of the novena, a few even camp in the corridors of the Basilica for the entire novena cooking their meals there itself and return home only after the feast.
For the milling tourists who descend from the tour buses and gawk at the façade of the Basilica and then enter the church to file past the sacred relics of St Francis Xavier, it is nothing more than a curiosity and perhaps an anecdote to take back, with pictures of the visit to upload on social media sites. But for the Goan, Indian and foreign pilgrim, the visit to the Basilica is entirely different. Whether a child, a teen, an adult, a senior citizen, the pilgrimage of Old Goa arises from a faith that has transcended generations if Goans, and from the manner in which it is increasing, it is unlikely to die down soon.