95. Fantastically Revolting Corpse of St. Francis

The Fantastically Revolting Corpse of St. Francis Xavier!: The coastal paradise and beach-party-Gomorrah of Goa, like the rest of India, is chock a block with contradiction. As the Spanish did in the Philippines, the Portuguese left their calling cards in Goa with four centuries of colonial occupation. Walking into the streets of Goa, after walking anywhere else in India, makes this instantly apparent – Soccer replaces cricket, pork and beef are on every menu, Latin names adorn people and parks, alcohol flows like chai and, perhaps most exotically, Catholicism is everywhere. My first taxi driver in Goa had a crucifix on his dashboard, a sight in India that rivaled even the most jarring thing this country has thrown at me.

Indeed, after two months of wading through India’s dizzying, emotional morass of eastern religions, all of the Catholic imagery should have felt familiar, perhaps even comforting. Instead, it felt alien. But why should it be so out of place in this country, a place that so many people covet as a crossroads of spirituality? Old whitewashed churches dot the lush Goan landscape, punctuating the proliferation of small Catholic shrines erected in the nooks of every town, in the style of small Buddhist or Hindu shrines that allow people to pay even more frequent and convenient homage to saints and saviors. Women in billowing sarees and bright head scarves stream in and out of grand Catholic churches like individual rainbows. Local farmers with thin, weary backs plow rice paddies and strain to pull bullock carts beneath giant billboards announcing weekend rave parties and special electronica DJ events. Alcoholism ravages local populations, a gift from hard-drinking sailor colonists of Portugal that’s been amplified many times over by the annual invasion of Western pleasure seekers. I never warmed up to the idea that this peaceful, bucolic Eden has such a booze soaked alter-ego, but I did eventually succumb to the righteousness of the Catholic imagery. I was helped along mightily in that regard by the badly deteriorated body of a 500 year-old Jesuit.

Saint Francis Xavier is well known in the Roman Catholic Church as one of the most successful missionaries to ever roam Asia, as much for the number of converts he claimed as for the extensive, absurdly dangerous 15th century travel he endured. As it happened, his first and last stops in Asia were in Goa – the last being after his body was unearthed from its initial grave and moved to the Basilica Bom Jesus in Goa. That’s where it starts to get weird – When his body arrived in Goa a year after his death, it was noted to be in a perfectly preserved state despite a lack of embalming or preservative agents. The people were quick to declare it a miracle and the Church eventually followed after an extensive and, I’m sure, very medieval medical examination that included the Pope-sanctioned “Stick Your Finger in That Chest Wound” test. When two Jesuits obliged with the medical examiner and stuck their fingers into a small hole in Francis Xavier’s dead abdomen, they found them covered with blood that the physician smelled and declared to be “absolutely untainted.” Now I’m wondering if St. Francis Xavier inadvertently gave birth to the venerable “Smell My Finger” gag. Blasphemy.

After the Church declared his incorruptible body to be a true miracle he was on the 70-year fast track to sainthood, but not before the relic hungry Catholics had their way with the corpse. His right arm – his holy arm, his baptizing arm, his secret weapon, if you will – was promptly severed and sent to Rome where it still resides, stepping out occasionally for world tours and press junkets. His allegedly preserved organs and parts of his holy right shoulder blade were scattered around Southeast Asia. What remained of the body began to decay rapidly, though that did not prevent the Church in Goa from trotting the corpse around in public every 10 years in a special celebratory exposition. As you’d expect, someone eventually tried to steal one of his toes by biting it off and running away, prompting the Jesuits to lock the corpse inside of an elaborate, transparent coffin made of silver and glass. That’s where it remains today. And although it is elevated from the floor on a pedestal about 20 feet high and difficult to see, the church has been kind enough to display close-up photos of the decidedly corruptible cadaver of St. Francis Xavier. Much to the delight, you can imagine, of a ceaseless throng of Catholic pilgrims, Hindu tourists and me.


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  3. Peter says:

    if you make it over to europe, and specifically italy, and more specifically rome and florence, you can see lots of great ‘relics’ like severed fingers, arms, heads, slivers of the ‘true cross’, the footsteps of jesus, the stairs of pontius pilate, a whole church made of bones (the capuchin crypt, you should actually really see this, just to be alternately terrified and awestruck), whole bodies ‘mummified’, and lots of other greast things. you could really base your whole trip on this if you want. in fact, thousdands of pilgrams do it every year.

    send us an email before you head to italy (if you’re still going). we’ll give you the rundown!

  4. Anonymous says:

    catholics love miracles