The extraordinary power of a 500-year-old arm
St Francis Xavier’s right forearm and hand is travelling across Canada this month, evidence of a growing piety of relics.
In recent years the relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux have travelled throughout Europe and North America, as have the relics of St Maximilian Kolbe and Padre Pio.
On all such pilgrimages, those coming to venerate the relic greatly exceed the expectations of the organisers. That seems to the case here, judging by early reports from eastern Canada, where the relic has been this week before heading to Toronto and then to western Canada.
Among all relics of all the saints, I daresay that the forearm and hand relic of St Francis Xavier might just be the most impressive. First, there are few relics – short of incorrupt bodies – as large. And of course the body of St Francis Xavier is incorrupt, venerated for more than 400 years in the cathedral of Goa, the site of his most impressive missionary work. It is only the forearm and hand that is kept at il Gesù, the mother church of the Jesuits in Rome.
I can’t think of another relic more suited to the saint. That arm baptised thousands upon thousands in India. Only the sacra lingua of St Anthony compares. The tongue of the great Franciscan preacher was found to be incorrupt when his remains were exhumed some 30 years after his death. It was St Bonaventure himself who reached into the remains to discover the miraculously preserved tongue. The sacra lingua is preserved in Padua, where it is carried in procession on major feasts. Indeed, the Franciscans even have a feast day for the sacra lingua, in addition to the one for St Anthony.
In an age when the Church is emphasising anew her missionary nature, and the priority of missionary discipleship, it can be hoped that the relic of St Francis Xavier, the greatest missionary since the Apostle Paul, might inspire a new missionary zeal.
I have a particular gratitude for the early Jesuit’s missionary fervour. As a son of Goa myself, in whose family the faith has been handed on for as many generations as we can count, it is a particular joy to welcome the relic to our chapel on campus. I cannot know for sure of course, but it might have been that arm that baptised my ancestors, gave them Holy Communion and made the Sign of the Cross over their graves.
Now that Catholics from Goa are dispersed all over the world – especially in the United Kingdom and in Canada – the missionary fruit of St Francis Xavier is reaching new lands, even in the old world.
St Francis gives us a sharp challenge. Consider the text selected for the breviary for his feast day, an excerpt of a letter he wrote to St Ignatius Loyola:
Many, many people hereabouts are not becoming Christians for one reason only: there is nobody to make them Christians. Again and again, I have thought of going round the universities of Europe, especially Paris, and everywhere crying out like a madman, riveting the attention of those with more learning than charity: “What a tragedy: how many souls are being shut out of heaven and falling into hell, thanks to you!”
This thought would certainly stir most of them to meditate on spiritual realities, to listen actively to what God is saying to them. They would forget their human desires, their human affairs, and give themselves over entirely to God’s will and his choice. They would cry out with all their heart: Lord, I am here! What do you want me to do? Send me anywhere you like – even to India!
Strong words, in the manner of St Paul. We should not dismiss them as intended for another time, or another circumstance. It is true that not everyone is called to go to India – just down the road from il Gesù in Rome is the tomb of St Philip Neri, who so earnestly wanted to follow in the footsteps of St Francis Xavier, but was told that Rome was to be his “Indies”. So he became a saint instead in Rome, being canonised on March 12, 1622, along with St Francis Xavier himself, and St Ignatius too. (St Teresa of Avila was also included for good measure.)
It is said that when St Ignatius sent a brother Jesuit off to his mission, he would exhort him: “Ite! Incendite!” We usually translate that as “Go! Set the world on fire!”, and St Francis did that, burning down pagan idols in India and carrying the light of Christ to the land of the Rising Sun.
Now that arm comes to Canada, from which the torch of faith is to be received again.
(Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca)