23 Nov 2014 | 07:49pm IST
Venerated The World Over
While the sacred relics of St Francis Xavier are enshrined above the Mausoleum at the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Old Goa, the past five centuries have seen various parts of the body distributed, preserved and venerated in different parts of the world.
Millions of devotees are expected to venerate the relics of St Francis Xavier during the XVII Exposition at Old Goa. But this privilege of venerating a relic will not be restricted to Goa alone, since various parts of the saint’s body have been distributed and preserved in different parts of the world. All these various relics are also revered with traditional fervour during the feast of St Xavier on December 3.
The relics of St Francis Xavier are known to have been preserved and venerated in churches and chapels in Old Goa, Margao, Panjim and Canacona in Goa, as well as in Mumbai. Elsewhere in the world, the relics are reported to have been encased in reliquaries at Japan, Macau, Italy, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, Canada and USA.
It may be noted that relics are usually classified in three categories. A first class relic is a part of the body (bone, hair, a fingernail, etc.), while a second class relic is something owned or worn. A third class relic is more common and it could even include someone touching a religious object to a first-class relic and that object would be a third-class relic.
In his book St Francis Xavier and his Shrine, the Jesuit scholar P Rayanna provides details on some of the various relics of the saint which have been venerated across the world, since the death of the saint five centuries ago.
One of the very first relics of St Francis Xavier was taken by the servant who was sent to exhume his body on the desolate coast of Sancian and is reported to have cut off a piece of flesh, a finger’s length, from the left knee.
Except for a big toe, all the other toes from the right foot of St Francis’ body are missing. In 1554, a Portuguese lady, Dona Isabel de Carom, anxious to have a relic of the saint, bit off the little toe from his right foot. This toe in the possession of the family of the Count of Nova Goa in Portugal and was donated to Santa Casa De Misericordia, a state run Portuguese Charity who also maintains a well known museum in Lisbon.
From the very beginning the sacredness of relics of St Francis Xavier was obvious to everyone. “The miracle body of the saint naturally drew passionate responses and people even craved to have personal possession of his relics,” Fr Victor Ferrao, professor at Rachol Seminary says.
In 1556, St Paul’s College had a reliquary containing some hair of the saint, presumably taken out from the coffin. His right hand was cut on two separate occasions. The first operation took place on November 3, 1614, by order of Father General Claude Aquaviva. The arm was cut off at the elbow and sent to Rome the following year. It is kept in a silver reliquary and venerated in the church of Gesu. A small piece of this relic was sent to Malines, Belgium.
The second amputation took place on April 27, 1619 where the rest of the right arm with the shoulder blade was cut off at the order of the same Father General in order to satisfy the request of the Jesuit Province of Japan for a great relic of its first apostle. The shoulder blade was divided into three parts, one for each college of Cochin, Malacca and Macau. Unfortunately these relics were lost when the Dutch took Malacca in 1643 and Cochin in 1663.
In Macau, the relic including a good part of the shoulder 12 cm and the top part of that bone with the forearm is kept in a reliquary of solid silver in the seminary of St Joseph.
The demand for relics of the saint grew with each passing decade. Fr Feroz Fernandes at the Pilar Seminary says that St Francis’ body remaining incorrupt added to the odour of sanctity felt by his devotees.
“The relics then became tangible assistance for people to pursue holiness as reflected in the life of the saint and to seek his intercession in their needs. Although saints do not perform miracles, God does and very often he does it through intercessors like St Francis Xavier,” he says.
By 1636, all the internal organs were removed from the body of St Francis Xavier and distributed as relics in the East and West. Authentic records of these relics speak of them being taken from the breast, intestines, flesh and interior organs.
During the official inspection prior to the Exposition of 1782, the Inspector General of Goa had declared that a relic was with him at home. A part of it is still in possession of his descendants in Portugal while the rest reached its native Castle of Xavier in 1902.
After the exposition in 1890, one of the toes fell off. Archbishop Valente placed it in a crystal case in 1894. It is kept in the Sacristy of Bom Jesus and is offered to those who want to kiss it. There is no reliable information available about the other two toes. But it is known that during the Exposition of 1910, two joints of the fourth toe, which were hanging on a thin skin, fell down. The then Patriarch Dom Mateus de Oliveira Xavier placed them on February 17, 1911 in the reliquary already existing in the Sacristy. Even now, one can see two bits of bones in the reliquary which the pilgrims kiss.
During the exposition of 1952, a dried skin of one leg was hanging. Dom Jose da Costa Nunes, the then Patriarch, cut it and out of it many small relics were made and placed in small reliquaries. In 1964 at the request of Fr Aires Fernandes, then parish priest of St Xavier’s Church, Dabul-Mumbai, a piece of this skin was offered to that church by Bishop Francisco Rebello, then Auxiliary to the then Archbishop Patriarch Dom Jose Alvernaz, and in charge of the Archdiocese of Goa and Daman.
“The Church,” says Fr Ferrao, “doesn’t accept exaggerated passion for venerable relics but at the same time remains very compassionate to the people who strive to express their love and devotion.”
But he clarifies, “The Church only venerates the relics and doesn’t worship any Saint. Worship is reserved for the triune God. There is hierarchy of veneration of the saints in the Church. The highest veneration is reserved for Mother Mary, then her spouse St Joseph, next are the Apostles and then the saints. Besides this, local patron saints can take precedence, on specific occasion as the case may be.”
In addition to the relics mentioned above there is a small bone of the saint that has been preserved and venerated at the St Francis Xavier Church in Bhatpal-Canacona in Goa. A large bone is preserved in the Holy Spirit Church in Margao. Relics are also preserved in the St Francis Xavier Chapel in Portais-Panjim and in the Precious Blood Parish at Cloverdale in Vancouver- Canada.
A reliquary of solid silver and gold containing first class relics of the saint is venerated in the Sacrament Catholic Parish in Rhode Island in the New England region of the United States. Another relic is reported to be in the St Francis Xavier Cathedral at Green Bay in Wisconsin, United States. Incidentally the cathedral claims to have the relics of an estimated 100 saints. Another relic is also part of the collection of the Western Jesuit Missions in the Saint Louis University Museum of Art, in midtown Saint Louis, Missouri-USA. The reliquary also houses the relics of other Jesuit saints.
According to Fr Fernandes, the ancient custom of veneration of relics dates back to the reverence shown at the graves of martyrs. “It was even followed at the time of the Apostles and finds support in the Bible. The Catholic Church encourages a healthy reverence for the sacred relics,” Fr Fernandes says, “placing veneration of relics in the same category as visits to sanctuaries, pilgrimages, processions, the stations of the cross, religious dances, the rosary and medals.”
“Time and again the Church has asserted that the relics do not posses magical powers nor offer physical health benefits on their own. A relic cannot replace the Blessed Sacrament or the Eucharist. The church also shuns economic use and abuse of relics so much so that the relic cannot be put up for veneration without the authentication of the Postulator,” he says.