The Fake Battle over the Body of St Francis Xavier

The 17th exposition of the Sacred Relics of St. Francis Xavier will be  solemnly inaugurated on the 22nd November 2014. In recent days, we had some people raising the question of the genuineness of the  sacred body which echoed the polemic that gripped the people of Goa in 1792 after the suppression of the Jesuits. The claim at that time was rather different from present one. It stated that the Jesuits shifted the real body of St. Francis Xavier to Portugal and it was claimed that a body of  dead priest replaced him in Goa. The same controversy raised its ugly head  25 years ago in Goa without much substance. The reining controversy claims that drew our attention claims that  sacred body of St. Francis  Xavier was lost at sea during its transit to Goa and was replaced by the then Portuguese authorities with the body of Buddhist Monk Thhotgamuwe Sr. Rahula Thera. This claims was highlighted by the Sinhalese as well as the English press of Sri Lanka igniting a new controversy in Goa.  Sri Lankan Journalist W.T. J. S Kaviratne who championed the conflict in Goa failed to convince Goans about the same. These claims are both misleading  and provocative and cannot stand any critical scrutiny. In this short article, I shall try to narrate the history of the body of St. Francis Xavier and strive to manifest how  those who interrogate its authenticity have no basis. At best their view  has to be dismissed as a conspiracy theory.  

St. Francis Xavier landed on the soil of Goa on 6th May 1542. During his ten years sojourn in the East, St. Francis  Xavier returned to Goa four times but his total stay in Goa did not exceed eight months . His love for Christ led him to travel distant places and converted thousands of people to Christianity. In India, he was particularly successful among the fishermen of the southern coast.  His missionary expeditions took him to foreign territories like the islands surrounding Ceylon, Malacca, Moro,  Moluccas and Japan. He nurtured a great desire to enter China and while on his way to that country being exhausted with the dangerous journey and suffering an unknown fever, he died on the island of Sanciao awaiting his Visa for his entry into China. Although, Francis  worked on islands close to Ceylon there is no evidence that he entered Sri. Lanka. Of all things said and done, one thing is certain,  Francis Xavier did not die in  Sr. Lanka. 

Soon after his death, the companions of St. Francis put him in a Chinese styled coffin and buried him with a lot of lime so as to allow his flesh to decompose fast on the Island of Sanciao. On 17th  February 1553 after more than two months his body was exhumed with the hope of taking his bones to Goa so that they can be sent to his family. While digging the grave, his right cheek was accidently hit by the spade and mark left by the spade was still visible on the face of the body which was kept  in the casket in old Goa. This was also confirmed by a legitimate medical report. To the astonishment of all, the body was still fresh and had not rotten even when there was so much of lime.  The body was taken to Malacca and was reburied without coffin very crudely at the entrance door of the sacristy of the Church of Our Lady of Mount at the end of March 1553. The grave was too small and hence the neck was bent during burial. After some months, they exhumed it and to their great surprise it was still fresh and did not decompose. Hence, on 15th August 1553, the ship Santa Cruz set sail for Goa along with the body under captain Lobo de Norhona. On reaching Quilon in Kerala, the Caption dropped anchor and took another boat to Goa to announce the arrival of the Body. No sooner Fr Melchior, the then Jesuit provincial in Goa, received the news, he along with several religious and a multitude of citizens assembled to receive the miraculous body.  The Body was embanked at port Bhatkal and the convoy then set sail for Goa, with the body placed in a solemnly lighted and decorated cabin.

The convoy arrived into Goa on 14th March 15 54.  It was kept in Ribandar Church for a night and the next day it was accorded ceremonious civil and military honours and kept on the upper floor of St. Paul College, Old Goa under lock and key.  Dr. Cosme  Saraiva, the then Physician of the Viceroy and who personally knew Francis  after examination of  the body certified under oath that he medically  checked all  parts of the body, especially the abdomen and found  it fresh without being embalmed with any artificial means.  It took 67 years for the Church to declare Francis Xavier as a saint. This honour was bestowed on him after a rigorous research and a long process. His many personal  letters that are now in public domain were studied and examined by the church tribunals. In 1556 the canonical process was initiated from Goa, with the help of these documents and testimonies of living witnesses of that time. In 1614, the right arm was amputated as the Pope required a concrete Proof of his incorruptible body. In 1616, the Pope ordered another complementary process put  c two cardinals at the helm of the enquiry committee in Rome. Finally, after a long canonical process Francis Xavier was beatified by Pope Paul V in 1669 and three years later Pope Gregory xv canonized him. Given the pace of those days, the news of his canonisation reached Goa only  in January 1664. 

From 1681, the Jesuits superiors in Goa already noticed that the body was already shrinking and exhibiting signs of deterioration.  In 1686 the body was shifted to a new and better coffin. Then in 1698, Cosmas III, the Grand Duke of Florence, sent a gift of the Florentine marble mausoleum on which the casket was mounted. As time lapsed the body , though deteriorating was found to remain integral without any sign of corruption. In 1744 under the orders of John  IV , the king of Portugal, the Archbishop of Goa and the Viceroy opened the body to verify its condition and established that it was integral. Later a new richer coffin was donated by queen Maria Sofia of Portugal. In 1751, the body was again opened for the sake of the family of the Viceroy. After the expulsion of the Jesuits, the basilica of Bom Jesus came under the control of the diocese. Hence, from 1782-1952, the body of St. Francis Xavier was exposed for solemn public veneration. It is reported that for the first six expositions, every time that the body was exposed , it was subjected to through medical examination by a team of eminent surgeons and their reports were made on oath and published widely in our society. All the six reports deem it fit for exposition and public veneration but also point out that it was steadily sinking and deteriorating. 

All through the various examination of the sacred relics of St. Francis Xavier, there is nothing that suggest that body is an Asian and not of European origin. Up to the solemn exposition of 1952, the body was in an open casket and the devotees could touch, feel and kiss the body freely. But it was discovered the rate of deterioration of the body was increasing and therefore, the body was placed in a glass casket and no longer could be touched directly. This continued in the last five solemn expositions. Same will continue during the current solemn exposition.  Hence, we can notice that there is no basis to believe that the body is that of an Asian or for that matter of a brown Sri Lankan. When the body was brought to Goa, certainly there were those who knew and met Francis Xavier when he was alive  and would have certainly discovered if his body was a fake one. Moreover, the body cannot be of an old monk who died at the age of 83 in 1491 as the Portuguese came into India only in 1498 and thereafter entered Sri. Lanka in 1505.  There are too many holes in the narrative that is under our study to merit any real attention. The body is certainly the sacred relic of St. Francis Xavier and cannot be subject to further brutalization because of an un-substantive conspiracy  raised by some people.           

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao