Hundreds of thousands of devotees descend on Old Goa, each year, from November 23 to December 3, to attend the novenas and feast of St Francis Xavier, who is popularly called ‘Goencho Saib’.
But, centuries ago, Old Goa attracted people for other reasons, too. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the beautiful city of Old Goa was the hub of trade of the Portuguese rulers.
Apart from that, when the Portuguese ruled Goa, many religious orders set up their institutions in the state – including the Jesuits, Augustinians and Oratorians.
The Jesuits were led by Francis Xavier, a Spanish priest who arrived in Goa in 1541. After spending some years in Goa, he travelled to Japan and China, where he died on December 3, 1552, and was buried on the coast of China. His body was later brought to Goa.
FROM SPAIN TO GOA
Francis Xavier was born into a wealthy family in Spain on April 7, 1506. He studied in Paris and also took his religious vows in Paris. He worked in hospitals in Italy, caring for the sick and downtrodden before coming to India.
He set sail for India as the papal nuncio in 1541, reaching Goa on May 6, 1541. In Goa, he would walk through the streets, ringing a little bell, inviting anyone who would care to listen to him preach the Word of God. He later published a catechism in Konkani, which was incidentally, the first booklet published in the Jesuit press in Goa.
Five months later, he went to India’s east coast as well as Sri Lanka, spending fifteen months preaching there. He spent the next few years in Malacca, the Moluccas/Maluku Islands (formerly called the Spice Islands) and Japan.
He returned to Goa in 1552. Later, en route to China, he succumbed to illness and breathed his last on the island of Shangchuan on December 3, 1552, at the age of 46.
Soon after his death, his body was placed in a Chinese-style wooden coffin, and packed with lime to hasten disintegration. However, when it was exhumed two months later, it was found to be incorrupt.
As per his wishes, his body reached Goa on March 16, 1554. It was buried in three different countries before reaching its final resting place in the Basilica of Bom Jesus, Old Goa.
On the orders of the then Portuguese Viceroy, it was subject to a critical medical examination by Dr Cosmas Saraiva and the Vicar General Dr Ambrosio Ribeiro and their report was that “there had been no embalming of any kind, no artificial preservatives were used, blood from a wound near the head was fresh; the flesh was intact and covered with natural skin, flexible and in no way desiccated; there was no trace of corruption.”
From 1614 onwards, the body underwent changes due to human interference (His forearm is preserved in the Church of the Gesù, the main church of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), in Rome, Italy). It was also exposed to the vagaries of nature since it was opened several times for veneration and inspection.
He was canonised on March 12, 1622.
INSIDE THE BASILICA
The body of St Francis Xavier is currently enshrined in a silver tomb in the Basilica of Bom Jesus, Old Goa, and installed on a marble pedestal. It has two parts – a mausoleum with Florentine art; and a coffin made by Goan silversmiths between 1636 and 1637.
Celebrated Florentine sculptor, Giovanni Batista Foggini (1653-1737) took ten years to complete the mausoleum, which is made of jasper, marble and bronze, and adorned with images of angels and memorable incidents from the life of St Francis Xavier.
The silver casket, enclosing the coffin of the saint, is embellished with silver and gold ornamentation. Several panels all around it represent important stages in his life.
The silver casket is lowered for public veneration only during the exposition, which occurs every 10 years, the most recent one being in 2004.
NOVENAS & MORE
During the novenas, devotees throng the basilica to attend the masses which are held daily. People come from near and far to pray, while some attend the novenas on all 9 days as well as the feast day. The masses are held in a big pandal, which is erected outside the basilica during these 10 days.
A big fair, with stalls selling a variety of things, is also put up on the occasion.
However, in Goa, the saint is remembered on other days, too, and every Catholic litany ends with a hymn in his honour, and there are several of these in Konkani.