Every year, thousands of devotees and tourists visit Old Goa from November 24 to December 3, when the novenas of St Francis Xavier are held, followed by the feast. During the 16th and 17th century, this city was one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Peppered with churches, it was known as the ‘Rome of the Orient.’ The layout of the city and its beauty prompted the quote “Quem viu Goa, nao tem de ver Lisboa” ie “If you have seen Goa, you need not see Lisboa.” Lisboa is the capital of Portugal.
INSIDE THE BASILICA
St Francis Xavier, a Spanish Jesuit priest, arrived in Goa in 1541. He died en route to China and his body was brought from Malacca to Goa, his final resting place, on March 16, 1554. His mortal remains are housed in the Basilica of Bom Jesus, in Old Goa.
The construction of the basilica started in 1594 and was completed in 1605. The church has a magnificent granite facade and lightly ornamented interior. The body of the church is a spacious rectangular and longitudinal nave. In the transept, there are two chapels – the one on the northern extremity is dedicated to the Blessed Sacrament, while the one on the south houses the marble mausoleum of St Francis Xavier. Further inside is a richly furnished sacristy.
The main altar is topped with the symbol of the Holy Trinity, although dedicated to the Infant Jesus, from whom the church derives its name.
In the centre of the altar stands a huge statue of St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus. Clothed in vestments, the attitude of the saint inspires awe, mingled with veneration. His right hand is raised like that of a general ordering his soldiers to advance, but at the same time pointing towards heaven. It is said that this was exactly the attitude of the saint when, in ecstasy, he exclaimed, "Quam sordet mihi tellus quum coelum aspicio!" ('How doth the earth disgust me when I lift my eyes to heaven!')
For many years, the Portuguese governors and viceroys followed the custom of holding their installation ceremony at Bom Jesus, during which they received the staff from the outgoing head of government at the hands of the bishop.
Attached to the Basilica of Bom Jesus is the Professed House. The celebrated Orientalist, Anquetil du Perron, described it in his Discours Preliminaire ou Introduction au Zend Avesta: "I cannot help admiring the house of the Jesuits, a superb building, which would have been regarded in Europe as one of the most beautiful religious houses."
After the expulsion of the Jesuits from Goa, in 1759, this House was placed under the care of the Archbishop and was occupied for some time afterwards by one of the seminaries established for the instruction of the clergy.
The body of the saint is enshrined in a silver tomb in the basilica. Installed on a marble pedestal, the tomb has two distinct parts – the mausoleum is “a perfect piece of work in most polished Florentine Art” as claimed by Pope Pius XII, while the coffin was made by Goan silversmiths between 1636 and 1637.
The mausoleum took the celebrated Florentine sculptor, Giovanni Batista Foggini (1653-1737) ten years to complete. It consists of three parts – the lower one being a rectangular platform of jasper, the middle a symbolic sculpture of marble with cherubs at the four corners, two angels, and the main part standing over the platform of a bluish streaked marble chest, which has four bronze panels depicting four memorable incidents in the life of St Francis.
The silver casket, enclosing the coffin of St Francis is made of bronze, embellished with silver and gold ornamentation. Several panels around its sides represent the important stages in the life of the Apostle.
The body of the saint is exposed for public veneration every ten years. Between 1782 and 1994, there were 15 public expositions.