I went there on a day trip.
No big plans, just take it easy. Hang out as the tourist.
All I wanted to do was look at some old churches.
After two torrid months of travelling around central India and seeing a lot of temples and mosques, I thought a few churches would be a welcome diversion.
There were three of them in Old Goa. They were old: 4 centuries.
Yep, an easy day for me.
Leastways, that’s what I thought on the way out there…..
On arriving, I was met by the sight of thousands of thronging people and contingents of khaki-clad Indian police.
What was going on?
I asked that question and soon got an answer: pilgrims.
Once a year, tens of thousands of pilgrims descended on Old Goa to pay their respects to Saint Francis Xavier.
And I just happened to be there then.
Saint Francis Xavier.
There was a special connection between that famous Catholic saint and the Goans – or at least, that is what they believed.
To be a Goan Christian meant to worship Saint Francis Xavier. Once a year, they flocked to Old Goa, to worship him and recall their origins. He was regarded as their founding father.
Saint Francis Xavier is one of the better known Saints in the Catholic pantheon. He is still actively worshipped by true believers in the developing world such as South America and The Philippines. I had witnessed this personally.
But nowhere in the world was he worshipped and revered like in Goa. Saint Francis Xavier as far as the Goans were concerned, was their saint.
How did they get this idea into their heads?
As I recovered from my surprise at seeing so many people, this question was uppermost in my mind.
What was happening here, as far as I could see, was mass delusion. Blind faith.
The story of Saint Francis Xavier lent little to the notion that somehow, the Goan Christians had occupied as special place in his heart.
In 1510, the Portuguese arrived on the shores of India, sailed in land following the Mandovi River and sighting a town which was an ideal place for them to establish a trading outpost, conquered the town and renamed it ´Goa´.
Whilst it was the spice trade which first drew the Portuguese to Goa, their motivations for empire were more complex. They wanted to win converts for Christianity as well as line their pockets. In their drive to combine religion with capitalism, the Portuguese ran into a problem: there was a shortage of priests. Despite the glory of working amongst the heathen and winning converts for the Lord, many priests back in Portugal were not too keen to renounce the safety of their lives at home me for the dangers of malarial jungles.
St Francis Xavier was a notable exception.
He arrived in 1540. He was a Spaniard and a close friend of the Ignatius Loyola (now Saint Ignatius) the founding father of the Jesuits. The Jesuits arose in reaction to the schism between the Catholics and Protestants. Chief amongst the Protestant grievances against the Catholic church was its corruption. Catholic priests were notorious for taking bribes – selling ‘indulgences’ – and drinking and whoring. The Jesuits represented an attempt to reform Catholicism from within. Men like Xavier emphasized the need to get back to the basics and reject all forms of worldly attachment. The Jesuits were puritans who took strict vows of chastity, poverty, soberness, helping the poor and sick – and going out into the world and saving the souls of heathens.
When Xavier arrived in Goa he was 35. Within 10 years of his arrival, he was dead. During that time, he travelled extensively through Asia, working to spread the good word and save souls wherever he went. Given the extent of his travels, one almost suspects that behind his missionary zeal was a simple case of wanderlust. He died of a fever on the island of Sancien just outside Canton whilst trying to gain entry into the gigantic untapped market for souls in China.
During his life, Xavier hardly qualified as a likely candidate to become Goa’s future patron saint. This status was only acquired after he died.
It was then that he became the personification of a Miracle.
Xavier’s body was buried in Sancien along with four bags of lime, which normally should have eaten away his flesh pretty quickly. Some months later the decision was made to dig up Xavier’s skeleton and transfer it for burial in the Portuguese colony of Malacca. Lo and behold, when the body was dug up, it was found that the flesh not been eaten away and furthermore, that it ‘had all the appearance of a living man’. Fresh blood ran from an open wound. The body which refused to rot was duly buried in Malacca, but several months later, the governor had it dug up again so that he could inspect it. To his amazement Xavier’s body was still in perfect condition. ‘Such a life-like body’ decided the governor, ‘could not be consigned to the grave’, so he put it on a ship and had it sent to Goa.
In the meantime, rumors about the miracle of Xavier’s un-decayed body spread in Goa long before the ship transporting his body docked. A Jesuit priest sailed out to meet the ship and confirmed the miracle himself. He went back to Goa and spread the news and by the time the body arrived, huge crowds gathered to meet it. The Viceroy, suspecting that the body had been embalmed, had it inspected by his chief medical officer, who reported that the intestines were still present, that the body had not been embalmed and that the blood was still quite fresh.
The word ‘incorruptible’ can have various meanings.
If during his life Francis Xavier was incorruptible – meaning ‘moral, honorable’ – then after he died he became incorruptible meaning: ‘imperishable, immortal’.
It was the latter definition of ‘incorruptible’ which proved to be far more important for the Catholic Goans than the former. It was where their special relationship with Saint Francis Xavier began.
In the meantime, the Portuguese, now the administrators of an entire province populated by millions of people, shifted their government to the mouth of the Mondovi river, where they established a city of Panjim. This became the capital of the province named Goa – and the original town named Goa, became ‘Old Goa’.
Stripped of its function as seat of administration and arms, Old Goa became a purely religious center; convents and seminaries were built where local Goans were trained to become priests.
But it was never destined to become a quiet town dedicated to silence and prayer.
The remains of Saint Francis Xavier were placed inside a glass and silver case perched on top of an elaborate marble mausoleum built inside Old Goa’s largest church, the Basilica of Dom Jesus.
It in turn became a pilgrimage site.
Arriving in Old Goa, the first thing the visitor sees are the three main cathedrals in Old Goa, of which the Basilica of Dom Jesus is one. It was on my left as I got out of the bus. It was a dark structure built from the red-brown stone.
There was a massive tent canopy next to the church and milling beneath and around it, were crowds of pilgrims. From there also came the sounds of someone talking through a loudspeaker system and intermittent bursts of singing.
Next to the tent canopy was a very long line of pilgrims snaking its way into the entrance door.
Joining the long cue wending its way into the Basilica of Dom Jesus, I was conscious of joining a long and historic stream of pilgrims who had travelled to Old Goa to see and venerate the uncorrupted body of St Francis Xavier.
It was hot.
The cue moved steadily, but slowly. The pilgrims were from every age group, from children and teenagers to the elderly and the very old. It was impressive, given how many people there were together in one area, how little noise there was; people chatted quietly or whispered.
This was a solemn event.
People stood before the mummified remains of the incorruptible saint and crossed themselves.
I drifted outside and stood under the tent canopy.
There were endless rows of plastic chairs. Maybe there was a thousand of them, possibly more. The ceiling of the canopy was covered in brightly colored designs and supported by a multitude of blue and white poles. At the church end of the canopy was a long counter covered in gold cloth and behind stood several important Church dignitaries, dressed in all their finery and wearing long hats. The sheer logistics of setting up this tent church was impressive.
On the counter was a microphone and next to the podium were big loudspeaker boxes. Eight masses were given every day during the festivities, most of them in Konkani but three of them in English. As luck would have it, I turned up at the tail end an English mass. Behind the microphone was the ‘auxiliary Bishop of Mumbai’ a certain Percival Mendes. Amongst other things, I picked up these sentences:
1- St. Xavier’s uncorrupt body was a great gift to the church and the people of Goa.
2 – Before leaving for the East, Xavier had told the Goans: ‘I am leaving Goa and will not come back again, but instead my body will come to Goa.
3- St. Xavier loved Goa and this is why his body had been preserved from corruption.
I stared at Bishop Mendes in disbelief. Never before had I heard so many barefaced lies told by a person in a position of authority. I looked at all the immaculately dressed people all around me, the thousands of them.
Was the human need to believe in miracles, in the supernatural, really so deep-rooted and profound, that it paralyzed the human capacity to reason?
But it was the wrong question to ask.
On the bus back to Panjim, where I was staying at a small family run hotel, I got talking to a woman who told me with some pride:
‘Xavier died in 1552, almost 500 years ago, and he’s still here in Goa today!’
As if this ‘fact’ was the clincher.
‘He’s still here!’
This woman expressed her unabashed love for the incorruptible saint. A love experienced by so many others.
That night, I met a Goan couple who lived in the U.K. and were visiting their parents and relatives. Both of them were educated and spoke fluent English.
They certainly did not love the saint.
They had nothing good to say about him.
Yet it was thanks to them that I was able to unravel the mystery of why so many other Goans did love their patron saint.
And believed implicitly in The Miracle.
In the morning, I arrived in Old Goa as a tourist. Taking it easy. No dramas.
In the evening, I became a traveler, digging deep.
In the morning I lived in the 16th century.
In the evening, I was back in the 21st.
It was during this journey that the line between the two eras, the 16th and the 21st centuries, the past and present, faded.
In the blind worship of the incorruptible saint there was a powerful metaphor for events unfolding on a much wider scale in today’s globalised world…….