Close to the Convent of St Francis, the 1605 church of Bom Jesus, “Good” or “Menino Jesus”, is known principally for the tomb of St Francis Xavier. In 1946, it became the first church in India to be elevated to the status of Minor Basilica. On the west, the three-storey Renaissance facade encompasses Corinthian, Doric, Ionic and Composite styles.
The interior is entered beneath the choir, supported by columns. On the northern wall, in the centre of the nave, is a cenotaph in gilded bronze to Dom Jeronimo Mascarenhas, the Captain of Cochin and benefactor of the church. The main altar, extravagantly decorated in gold, depicts the infant Jesus under the protection of St Ignatius Loyola (founder of the Jesuit Order); to each side are subsidiary altars to Our Lady of Hope and St Michael. In the southern transept, lavishly decorated with twisted gilded columns and floriate carvings, stands the Chapel and Tomb of St Francis Xavier. Constructed of marble and jasper in 1696, it was the gift of the Medici, Cosimo III, the Grand Duke of Tuscany; the middle tier contains panels detailing the saint’s life. An ornate domed reliquary in silver contains his remains; for a week around his feast day, December 3, tens of thousands of pilgrims – Hindus as well as Christians – queue for darshan (ritual viewing) of the casket before attending open-air Mass in the square outside.
St Francis Xavier
St Francis Xavier
Francis Xavier, the “Apostle of the Indies”, was born in 1506 in the old kingdom of Navarre, now part of Spain. When the Portuguese king, Dom Joao III (1521–57), received reports of corruption and dissolute behaviour among the Portuguese in Goa, it was Xavier, a recent graduate in theology from the University of Paris, whom the Jesuit Order selected to restore the moral climate of the colony.
Arriving after a year-long journey, the young priest embarked on a busy programme throughout southern India, founding numerous churches and converting an estimated thirty thousand people – primarily by performing such miracles as raising the dead and curing the sick with a touch of his beads. Subsequently he took his mission further afield to Sri Lanka, Malacca (Malaysia), China and Japan, where he was less successful.
When Xavier left Goa for the last time, it was with the ambition of evangelizing in China; however, he contracted dysentery aboard ship and died on the island of San Chuan (Sancian), off the Chinese coast, where he was buried. On hearing of his death, a group of Christians from Malacca exhumed his body – which, although the grave had been filled with lime to hasten its decomposition, they found to be in a perfect state of preservation. Reburied in Malacca, his body was later removed and taken to Old Goa, where it has remained ever since, enshrined in the Basilica of Bom Jesus.
However, St Francis’s incorruptible corpse has never rested entirely in peace. Chunks of it have been removed over the years by relic hunters and curious clerics: in 1614, the right arm was dispatched to the pope in Rome (where it allegedly wrote its name on paper), a hand was sent to Japan, and parts of the intestines to Southeast Asia. One Portuguese woman, Dona Isabel de Caron, even bit off the little toe of the cadaver in 1534; apparently, so much blood spurted into her mouth, it left a trail to her house and she was discovered.
Every ten years, the saint’s body is carried in a three-hour ceremony from the Basilica of Bom Jesus to the Sé cathedral, where visitors file past, touch and photograph it. During the 2004–05 “exposition”, around 256,000 pilgrims flocked for darshan or ritual viewing of the corpse, these days a shrivelled and somewhat unsavoury spectacle.