This post is on the occasion of the Feast of St Francis Xavier today, 3rd of December. The feast is observed every year on this day at the Basilica of Bom Jesus, Goa.
The imposing Basilica of Bom Jesus, a World Heritage Site is known throughout the Roman Catholic World. It is the most popular church in Goa among locals and tourists. Tourists and crowds are the heaviest at the time of today’s Feast of St Francis Xavier and during the preceding nine-day devotional novena, with lots of lighthearted festivity alongside the more solemn open-air Masses.
Everything about the over 410 years old Basilica of Bom Jesus (baby or infant Jesus) and of St Francis Xavier is so very interesting that I am making this article very exhaustive. The narration below is based on the information we gathered before our visit to the Basilica and from our guide whom you can see in the attached video and from our own overall experience at the Basilica. Those rushing through this article may just read the ‘Red Text’.
Basilica of Bom Jesus contains the tomb and mortal remains of St Francis Xavier, the so-called Apostle of the Indies. St Francis Xavier’s missionary voyages throughout the East became legendary. His ‘incorrupt’ body (exactly 464 years old! as of today) is on the right side of the altar at the mausoleum, at a height, in a glass-sided coffin amid a shower of gilt stars. You can see these details in the attached video and photographs.
Construction on the basilica began in 1594 and was completed in 1605, to create an elaborate late-Renaissance structure, fronted by a facade combining elements of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian design. Prominent in the design of the facade is the intricately carved central rectangular pediment, embellished with the Jesuit emblem ‘IHS,’ an abbreviation of the Latin ‘Iesus Hominum Salvator’ (Jesus, Saviour of Men). Inside, the basilica’s layout is simple but grand, contained beneath a simple wooden ceiling. The huge and ornate gilded reredos, stretching from floor to ceiling behind the altar, takes pride of place, its baroque ornament contrasting strongly with the classical, plain layout of the cathedral itself. It shows a rather portly St Ignatius Loyola, protecting a tiny figure of the infant Jesus. His eyes are raised to a huge gilded sun above his head, on which ‘IHS’ is again emblazoned, above which is a representation of the Trinity.
To the right of the altar as I mentioned above is the slightly grisly highlight for the vast majority of visitors: the body of St Francis Xavier himself. The body was moved into the church in 1622, and installed in its current mausoleum in 1698 courtesy of the last of the Medicis, Cosimo III, Grand Duke of Tuscany, in exchange for the pillow on which St Francis’ head had been resting. Cosimo engaged the Florentine sculptor Giovanni Batista Foggini to work on the three-tiered structure, constructed of jasper and marble, flanked with stars, and adorned with bronze plaques that depict scenes from the saint’s life. Topping it all off, and holding the shriveled saint himself, is the casket, designed by Italian Jesuit Marcelo Mastrili and constructed by local silversmiths in 1659, whose sides were originally encrusted with precious stones; which over the centuries, have been picked off. Once every 10 years, the saint is given an exposition, and his body hauled around Old Goa before scores of pilgrims. The last one was in 2014, and the next one will be in 2024 at the time of this Feast.
Passing from the chapel towards the sacristy there are a couple of items relating to St Francis’ remains and, slightly further on, the stairs to a gallery of modern art. Next to the basilica is the Professed House of the Jesuits, a two-storey laterite building. It actually pre-dates the basilica, having been completed in 1585. It was from here that Jesuit missions to the east were organized. Part of the building burned down in 1633 and was partially rebuilt in 1783.
Mass is held in the basilica in Konkani at 7am and 8am Monday to Saturday, at 8am and 9.15am on Sunday, and at 10.15am in English on Sunday. Confession is held daily in the sacristy from 5pm to 6pm.
Now coming to the life of Saint Francis Xavier, he was born in Javier, Kingdom of Navarre, now a part of Spain, on 7th April 1506. He was the youngest son of Juan de Jasso y Atondo, seneschal of Xavier castle, who belonged to a prosperous farming family and had acquired a doctorate in law at the University of Bologna, and later became privy counselor and finance minister to King John III of Navarre (Jean d'Albret). Francis' mother was Doña María de Azpilcueta y Aznárez, sole heiress of two noble Navarrese families. He was thus related to the great theologian and philosopher Martín de Azpilcueta. Notwithstanding different interpretations on his first language, no evidence suggests that Xavier's mother tongue was other than Basque, as stated by himself, and confirmed by the sociolinguistic environment of the time. He was a companion of St. Ignatius of Loyola and one of the first seven Jesuits who took vows of poverty and chastity at Montmartre, Paris in 1534. He led an extensive mission in Asia, mainly in the Portuguese Empire of the time and was influential in evangelization work, most notably in our country. He also was the first Christian missionary to venture into Japan, Borneo, the Maluku Islands and other areas. He was beatified by Pope Paul V on 25th October 1619 and canonized by Pope Gregory XV on 12th March 1622. In 1624 he was made co-patron of Navarre alongside Santiago. Known as the "Apostle of the Indies," and the "Apostle of Japan", he is considered to be one of the greatest missionaries since St. Paul. In 1927, Pope Pius XI published the decree "Apostolicorum in Missionibus" naming St. Francis Xavier, along with St. Thérèse of Lisieux, co-patron of all foreign missions. He is now co-patron saint of Navarre with San Fermin. The Day of Navarre (Día de Navarra) in Spain marks the anniversary of Saint Francis Xavier's death, on 3rd December 1552.
Coming to his missionary work in the East and elsewhere, Xavier left Lisbon on 7th April 1541 that is on the day of his thirty-fifth birthday, along with two other Jesuits and the new viceroy Martim Afonso de Souza, on the Santiago. As he departed, Francis was given a brief from the Pope appointing him apostolic nuncio to the East. From August 1541 he remained in Portuguese Mozambique, and arrived in Goa, then capital of Portuguese India on 6th May 1542, thirteen months after leaving Lisbon.
Following quickly on the great voyages of discovery, the Portuguese had established themselves at Goa thirty years earlier. Francis’ primary mission, as ordered by King John III, was to restore Christianity among the Portuguese settlers. According to Teotonio R. DeSouza, recent critical accounts indicate that apart from the posted civil servants, “the great majority of those who were dispatched as ‘discoverers’ were the riff-raff of Portuguese society, picked up from Portuguese jails”. Such people nor the soldiers, sailors or merchants came to do missionary work. Many of the arrivals formed liaisons with local women and adopted Indian culture. Missionaries often wrote against the “scandalous and undisciplined” behavior or their fellow Christians.
The Christian population had churches, clergy, and a bishop, but there were few preachers and not many priests. Xavier decided that he must begin by instructing the Portuguese themselves, and gave much of his time to the teaching of children. The first five months he spent in preaching and ministering to the sick in the hospitals. After that, he walked through the streets ringing a bell to summon the children and servants to catechism. He was invited to head Saint Paul’s College, a pioneer seminary for the education of secular priests, which became the first Jesuit headquarters in Asia.
St Francis soon learned that along the Pearl Fishery Coast, which extends from Cape Comorin on the southern tip of India to the Island of Mannar, off Sri Lanka there were people called Paravas. Many of them had been baptized ten years before, merely to please the Portuguese, but remained uninstructed in the faith. Accompanied by several native clerics from the seminary at Goa, he set sail for Cape Comorin in October 1542. First he set himself to learn the language of the Paravas; he taught those who had already been baptized, and preached to those who weren’t.
He devoted almost three years to the work of preaching to the people of South India and Sri Lanka, converting many. Many were the difficulties and hardships which Xavier had to encounter at this time, sometimes because the Portuguese soldiers, far from seconding his work, hampered it by their bad example and vicious habits. He built nearly 40 churches along the coast, including St. Stephen’s church at Kombuthurai in May 1544.
In the spring of 1545 Francis Xavier started for Portuguese Malacca. He labored there for the last months of that year. About January 1546, Xavier left Malacca for the Maluku Islands, where the Portuguese had some settlements. For a year and half he preached the Gospel there among a number of Islands. Here in December 1547 he met a Japanese man named Anjiro who then got converted to Christianity and adopted the name of ‘Paulo de Santa Fe’. Anjiro was the first Japanese Christian. Through him Francis learnt a great deal of Japan and decided to go there someday, to spread Christianity.
In January 1548 Francis returned to Goa to attend to his responsibilities as superior of the mission there. The next 15 months were occupied with various journeys and administrative measures. He left Goa on 15th April 1549, stopped at Malacca, and visited Canton. He was accompanied by Anjiro (Paulo de Santa Fe) to act as his mediator and interpreter and two other Japanese men – Father Cosme de Torres and Brother Joao Fernandes. He took with him presents for the King of Japan. Francis Xavier reached Japan on 27th July 1549, but he was not permitted to enter any port his ship arrived at, until 15th August, when he went ashore at Kagoshima, the principal port of Satsuma Province on the Island of Kyushi. As a representative of the Portuguese King, he was received in friendly manner. Shimazu Takahisa (1514-1571), daimyo of Satsuma, gave a friendly reception to Francis on 29th September 1549, but in the following year he forbade the conversion of his subjects to Christianity under penalty of death; Christians in Kagoshima could not be given any catechism in the following years. He was hosted by Anjiro’s family until October 1550. From October to December 1550, he resided in Yamaguchi. Shortly before Christmas, he left for Kyoto but failed to meet the Emperor. He returned to Yamaguchi in March 1551, where he was permitted to preach by the daimyo of the province. However lacking the fluency in the Japanese language, he had to limit himself to reading aloud the translation of a catechism.
The Japanese people were not easily converted; many of the people were already Buddhist or Shinto. Francis tried to combat the disposition of some of the Japanese that a God, who had created everything, including evil, could not be good. The concept of Hell was also a struggle; the Japanese were bothered by the idea of their ancestors living in Hell. Despite different religion, he felt that they were good people, much like Europeans, and could be converted. Xavier was welcomed by the Shingon monks since he used the word Dainichi for the Christian God; attempting to adapt the concept to local traditions. As Xavier learned more about the religious nuances of the word, he changed to Deusu from the Latin and Portuguese Deus. The monks later realized that Xavier was preaching a rival religion and grew more aggressive towards his attempts at conversion.
With the passage of time, his sojourn in Japan could be considered somewhat fruitful as attested by congregations established in Hirado, Yamaguchi, and Bungo. Xavier worked for more than two years in Japan and saw his successor-Jesuits established. He then decided to return to India. Historians debate the exact path he returned by, but from evidence attributed to the captain of his ship, he may have traveled through Tanegeshima and Minato, and avoided Kagoshima because of the hostility of the daimyo. During his trip, a tempest forced him to stop on an island near Guangzhou, China, where he met Diogo Pereira, a rich merchant and an old friend from Cochin. Pereira showed him a letter from Portuguese prisoners in Guangzhou, asking for a Portuguese ambassador to speak to the Chinese Emperor on their behalf. Later during the voyage, he stopped at Malacca on 27th December 1551, and was back in Goa by January 1552.
On 17th April 1552 he set sail with Diogo Pereira on the Santa Cruz for China. He planned to introduce himself as Apostolic Nuncio and Pereira as ambassador of the King of Portugal. But then he realized that he had forgotten his testimonial letters as an Apostolic Nuncio. Back in Malacca, he was confronted by the capitão Álvaro de Ataíde da Gama who now had total control over the harbor. The capitão refused to recognize his title of Nuncio, asked Pereira to resign from his title of ambassador, named a new crew for the ship, and demanded the gifts for the Chinese Emperor be left in Malacca.
In late August 1552, the Santa Cruz reached the Chinese island of Shangchuan, 14 km away from the southern coast of mainland China, near Taishan, Guangdong, 200 km south-west of what later became Hong Kong. At this time, he was accompanied only by a Jesuit student, Álvaro Ferreira, a Chinese man called António, and a Malabar servant called Christopher. Around mid-November he sent a letter saying that a man had agreed to take him to the mainland in exchange for a large sum of money. Having sent back Álvaro Ferreira, he remained alone with António. He died at Shangchuan from a fever on 3rd December 1552, while he was waiting for a boat that had agreed to take him to mainland China.
He was first buried on a beach at Shangchuan Island, Taishan, Guangdong. His incorrupt body was taken from the island in February 1553 and was temporarily buried in St. Paul's church in Portuguese Malacca on 22nd March 1553. An open grave in the church now marks the place of Xavier's burial. Pereira came back from Goa, removed the corpse shortly after 15th April 1553, and moved it to his house. On 11th December 1553, Xavier's body was shipped to Goa. It reached Goa on 14th March 1554, when thousands of people gathered to pay homage. The journey of Xavier’s incorrupt body over the years is very interesting. To get all these details you may click on the following link: http://pweb.cc.sophia.ac.jp/britto/xavier/newman3.html (This is very interesting, and one must read). The body finally is at the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Goa, as narrated above.