Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Lessons From Goa - Saint Francis Xavier

Body of Saint Francis Xavier in a silver casket of Basilica of Bom Jésus in Goa.
source: Wikipedia
While on a recent vacation in Goa, India we were treated to a guided tour of some of the historic places, including the UNESCO World heritage church of Bom Jésus (Good Jesus in Portuguese - is there a bad one?).

This church is notable mostly because it contains the remains of St Francis Xavier, co-founder of the Jesuits with St Ignatius Loyola.

The body of St Francis is allegedly incorruptible. Our guide assured us that it is exactly as St Francis was in life, despite being buried and exhumed multiple times before being placed in the air-tight silver casket. Curiously, given the importance of such miracles, this incorruptibility of St Francis' body is tantalisingly displayed through little windows showing selected body-parts barely visible from ground level as the casket is mounted some twenty feet up in an elaborate shrine, richly endowed with gold, silver and precious stones, presumably in tribute to his vow of poverty. Who wants to look directly at a rotting corpse?

What can be seen of the body suggests, if the legend of incorruptibility is true, that St Francis had the appearance of a blackened and desiccated corpse in life, which is curious because a statue of St Francis, which our guide assured us was a miraculously accurate statue, perfect in every details, shows him to be on the short side but otherwise a perfectly normal European, albeit with a rather strange posture.

However, these miracles of the incorruptibility of the body of Catholic saints need to be understood in terms of what the Catholic Church decrees to be corruption. This seems not to be what most people would regard as corruption of the body after death. In fact, judging by the example of the 'incorruptible' body of St Bernadette of Lourdes which has had to be replaced by a wax replica to avoid the revulsion most people experience when gazing upon the empty eye-sockets and protruding teeth and bones of a decayed corpse, what the Catholic Church defines as 'incorruptible' appears to be what most people would define as 'decaying'.

There is no doubt that this IS the body of St Francis because following one of the exhumation the body was measured to ensure it was the genuine body and was found to have miraculously shrunk. Clearly, only the genuine body of a saint could shrink and still remain incorrupt. According to our guide, it is now believed that the body shrinks annually but miraculously remains the same length.

The 'lifelike', incorruptible face of St Francis Xavier
St Francis was born into an aristocratic Navarrese Basque family in Javier, in the Kingdom of Navarre, now in present-day Spain in 1506. Having been educated at the University of Bologna and the Collège Sainte-Barbe, University of Paris and having taught Aristotelian philosophy for eleven years, he was one of seven students, including Ignatius Loyola who took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to the Pope at Montmartre, Paris in 1534, having founded a new Catholic order, the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). The Jesuits were the new shock troops of the Counter Reformation, formed in response to the growing rejection of Catholicism and Papal authority as the Protestant Reformation became increasingly successful in Europe. They also vowed to go to the Holy Lands to convert 'infidels'.

As a representative of this new order, Francis was appointed by Ignatius Loyola at the last minute to go to the Portuguese colony at Goa in India at the request of King John III of Portugal. He replaced one of the two original appointees who fell ill. Francis Xavier thus accidentally became the first Jesuit missionary. The colony of Goa had been captured from it's Islamic ruler some 30 years earlier and King John III felt that the colonists were losing their Catholicism. Many of the colonists had married Indians and were adopting Indian culture.

While based in Goa, Francis visited China, Japan, the Philippines and other Southeast Asian locations. He died at Shangchuan, on the island of Taishan, from a fever on 3 December 1552, while he was waiting for a boat that would take him to mainland China. Somehow God had neglected to ensure the survival of his missionary to China. He was originally buried on the beach but his body was exhumed in February 1553 and reburied in Portuguese Malacca in March. He was dug up again in April and taken to the house of Diogo Pereira who had sailed to China with him. He was eventually shipped to Goa in December 1553, buried again, then dug up and placed in the silver casket in December 1637. It's not clear during which of these exhumations his body is alleged to have shrunk.

Despite it's incorruptibility, various body parts have been detached to satiate the demand for holy relics. The right forearm was detached in 1617 and is now in the main Jesuit church in Rome, Il Gesù. Another arm bone was detached and originally destined for Japan but, due to hostility to Christianity in Japan, ended up in Portuguese Macau. Perhaps he was unfortunate in that, unlike so many other earlier Catholic saints, he appears to have been blessed with just the normal compliment of limbs, fingers, heads, genitalia and internal organs, so limiting the supply of relics to be distributed round the churches of Europe to enthral the faithful.

Under Catholic Portuguese rule, many of the local Hindu temples were destroyed and replaced by Christian churches. No schools were built for Indian children until the Portuguese were thrown out of India in 1961, leaving Goa with 100% childhood illiteracy, because it was believe education would encourage them to have thoughts of independence and question the authority of their colonial masters and the Catholic Church. Goa reputedly now has the highest literacy rate in India at 98%. Most children are fluent in Hindi and the local Goan language Konkani, as well as English. Many of them will also speak Marathi and a little Urdu. Only the older generation still speak any Portuguese.


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