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Millions expected to venerate remains of Saint Francis Xavier

Preparations are underway in Goa for the once-a-decade event

Millions expected to venerate remains of Saint Francis Xavier

A visitor takes a picture of the casket of St Francis Xavier at the 16th-century Basilica of Bom Jesu in Goa (Photo by Christopher Joseph)

Christopher Joseph, Old Goa
India

November 19, 2014

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Some five million people are expected to venerate the remains of the 16th century Spanish missionary Francis Xavier when they are exhibited for 40 days beginning this weekend in Goa.

For the once-a-decade event, the government of Goa has allotted some US$1.6 million to renovate and build infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and accommodation facilities.

Officially called the "Exposition of the Sacred Relics of St Francis Xavier," it has become a state-Church collaborative event, promoted by the state's Tourism Department.

The main attraction is the remains of the saint, who died in 1552. The remains are preserved in a glass-paneled silver casket and kept inside the 16th-century Basilica of Bom Jesu (Good Jesus). During the exposition the casket will be kept inside the nearby Se Cathedral, another 16th century building.

These buildings and numerous other churches and convents in Old Goa, the former colonial capital of the Portuguese in Asia, are now under the Archeological Survey of India (ASI), a federal agency for the care and maintenance of historically important structures across the nation.

"We're determined that this event is celebrated in all its pomp and piety. We are working with other government agencies and the Church to make it a huge success," said ASI's Gangadhar Koregaonkar, assistant superintending archeological engineer.

Archeological experts, stationed in Goa to oversee painting and maintenance of the buildings, said they want to make sure that temporary structures being put up on the vast campus do not harm the old buildings.

The exposition has been increasing in popularity with each event recording a roughly twentyfold increase in the last 30 years, said Father Alfred Vaz, chief of the organizing committee of the Goa archdiocese.

"This year we expect some five million people, at least half a million foreigners, to visit and venerate the relics," said the senior priest.

He said for years after the death of the saint on Shangchuan Island near China in 1552, the body was considered "uncorrupt" but the miracle of the body ended long ago. "What we now have is only the relics or remains of the body," he said.

The clothed skeleton can be seen through the glass panels of the silver case with the help of a light inside. Fr Vaz said people look forward to the exposition "to see the relics closer and kiss them seeking the blessings" of the saint.

The body was buried on the island where he died but a year later Jesuits moved it and temporarily buried it inside a church in Malacca. At that time in February 1553, they reportedly found the body “uncorrupt”. In December of the same year, the body was shipped to Goa.

The first exposition took place 23 years after the Jesuits were expelled in 1759 following the suppression of their society. The 1782 exposition was, historians say, to ally fears that Jesuits took away with them the uncorrupt body of the Jesuit saint.

A series of expositions followed but most of them marked special occasions. Since 1964, however, the relics have been displayed for 40 days every 10 years, covering the saint’s feast day on December 3.

Critics like Jose Mario, a Catholic who lives close to the cathedral compound, said the Church is "running a business" with the exposition of the remains of the saint. "It is no more faith. It is a business of donations and no one tells how much they collect."

He argued that if it were not for the money earned, the exposition would be for a shorter period, there would not be so many donation boxes around, and there would be no real need to keep a dead body unburied especially since officials agree that the miracle of the "uncorrupt body" is over.

"My faith should not depend on a body there," he said.

But Fr Vas said such accusations are common from people who do not understand the faith aspect of the event. "I do not know how much in donations we got last time, but the income from such activities go to fund our orphanages and old age homes. And, we don't spend money on this. The government departments take care of it," he said.

"For us, this is an occasion to catechize our people. It is an occasion of spiritual renewal for the people," he said explaining several liturgical and biblical programs they have scheduled for the period. And, most Goans who have migrated to other countries and are living in different cities come home for this special occasion, he said explaining the reason for having decennial expositions.

This year organizers are trying to attract more young people to the event by organizing an international FIFA approved soccer match involving teams from Egypt, Brazil, Portugal, Ghana, Nepal, India and Colombia. The teams are scheduled to play in at least four Indian cities, Fr Vaz said.

The matches with the theme, "preach from the ground" will cost some 10 million rupees (about $162,000) to organize but "we expect to cover at least some of the expenses from the tickets because some of these teams will have World Cup players", the priest said.

Goa is well known for soccer in India, "we would like to spread the spirit of Goan football across India with a Christian spirit" as a special exposition program, he said.

He also dismissed rumors that this will be the last exposition. "I think these are rumors spread by travel agents to get more customers," he said.

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