St. Francis Xavier

THE BODY OF ST. FRANCIS XAVIER
The Encyclopedia Britannica, in spite of its massive research facilities, has an entry, in which it is written that "one of the surviving buildings in Old Goa is the Basilica of Bom Jesus (1549-1603) in which lies the mummified body of St. Francis Xavier." (Micropae-dia, Vol. 5).

The same encyclopedia (Micropaedia, Vol. 8) refers to mummy as a body embalmed or treated for burial with preservatives after the manner of the ancient Egyptians. This process involved removing of the internal organs, treating the body with resin and wrapping it in linen bandages.

Different types of techniques have been used in the course of times. The body of Lord Nelson was brought from Trafalgar to England in a cask of brandy. The body of Alexander, The Great, was brought from Babylon to Macedonia in a container of honey. Sometimes the bodies were packed in a box with salt for three months and they were transformed into mummies.

With rare exceptions, the Christians rejected embalming and cremation since there was interference with the body. Later, the arterial injection techniques were developed in the 18th century for the preservation of bodies.

There have been also found well preserved corpses of more than 100 persons with facial hair, skin and other tissues remaining largely intact, in Xinjiang (China) in 1970s. Based on carbon 14 dating they were placed in the year 2000 B.C. These mummies were found by Xinjiang's leading archeologist, Wang Binghua. Victor Mair, Professor of Chinese, studied them in 1993 and found that they were not deliberately mummified but were in such condition because they were buried in the parched stony desert which formed the arid foothills of the Tian Shan (Celestial Mountain) in northwest China.

In an article published in Goa Today (August 1994) a Goan writer has quoted a historian priest who had told this Goan writer "that he was aware of the existence of hundreds others - 200 or 300 - some of them perhaps in a better state. When I contacted this historian priest for a list of these 200 or 300 bodies he said he was misquoted and that he had made a reference to embalmed or wax treated bodies.

St. Francis Xavier died on a Saturday on December 3, 1552, on the Chinese island Sancian. He was sick since November 21, 1552. Who would diagnose the malady? He had high fever and was asked to rest on ship board. But on account of strong waves he was taken to the island in a very modest hut of branches and mud lumps which had many openings through which cold winds would blow. The situation was worsening from day to day. There was no medical assistance, neither material comforts, nor medicines nor food. Antonio de Santa Fe was his only companion. However, it must be mentioned that inspite the body of weakness and high fever he was bled twice and it affected his health very badly.

Soon after his death, he was put in a Chinese style wooden coffin covering his body with lots of lime so that the flesh would decompose quickly and it would be possible to take his bones when the ship was sailing to Malacca. Lime is an oxide of calcium and it accelerates process of decomposition. According to some, this was done on the advice of the sailors and according to the letter of Joao Eiro, it was done at the request of the saint himself who desired that his bones should be taken to Goa.

Antonio and Captain Francisco Aguiar with two mulattos took the coffin to the foot of the hillock near the cross that the Portuguese had erected and buried him there and marked the grave with stones on the head side. The cold was so intense that the Portuguese and others did not come out for the burial.

Francis Xavier was exhausted with arduous ship journeys and the zeal of evangelization consumed him at the young age of 46. In a letter dated January 29, 1552, he was writing that all his hair had turned grey.

When the ship was about to sail for Malacca they opened the grave to check whether the bones could be taken to Malacca on February 17, 1553. When the body was exhumed the lime was removed and to the astonishment of all, it was noticed that the body was as fresh as when it was buried. They touched with their hands different parts of his body for assuring themselves. They realized that this was an extraordinary phenomenon. It defied the laws of nature. It is immaterial and irrelevant to wait till the end of the centuries to check whether the body remains as fresh as when it was buried. Francis Xavier was accepted as a saint in his life itself. The body remained buried for two months and half, in a coffin full of lime and did not decompose. This is a miracle indeed, irrespective of what may happen later.

In order to submit evidence to the captain of the ship they cut a piece of flesh of the left thigh just above the knee of the size of a finger. The wound was full of blood. Thereafter the coffin was taken to the ship which sailed to Malacca. The ship reached Malacca on March 22, 1553. The news spread like wild fire. The Vicar General examined the body and it was taken in a solemn procession to the Church of Our Lady of Mount where it was buried very crudely at the door of the sacristy even without a coffin. The grave was too small and when the body was thrown in the grave the neck was forcefully bent and broken due to very rough treatment. Perhaps the Governor of Malacca, D. Alvaro de Ataide who hated Xavier, was responsible for it. When the body was exhumed, once again, in the night of August 15, 1553, the body was fresh as well as the priestly vestments. The handkerchief that was covering the face and the cushion were full of dry blood. There was a hemorrhage in the cervical region; the nose was damaged and perhaps fracture of cervical vertebrae. It must be noted that there was no cadaveric stiffness.

Throughout the historical reports it is never recorded that the body was embalmed or that the body was decomposed or that foul smell was emanating from the body.

Meanwhile, these news from Malacca reached Goa. Lopo de Noronha, Captain of the ship that was carrying the coffin to Goa, anchored at Coulao and took a boat and left for Goa to convey the news of the arrival of the body of the saint.

Fr. Melchior, Provincial of the Jesuits hired a galleon which was royally decorated and conveyed the glad news to the Vice-Roy, to the Senate and to the people. The Provincial along with some religious and citizens sailed in the direction of the ship Santa Cruz that was carrying the body. It was at Bhatkal that the Provincial spotted the Santa Cruz ship which sailed for Goa surrounded by several other ships. The Vice-Roy himself accompanied by the nobility went to welcome the body. If one reads the description of the joyous happenings during those days he will get an idea of the solemnity. There was decoration everywhere in Old Goa and on the margins of the Mandovi river. The cannons from all the forts fired continuously to welcome the body which reached Ribandar in the night of March 14, 1554, and it was taken to the Church of Ajuda at Ribandar.

The Vice-Roy returned to Old Goa and alongwith the Arch-bishop, Provincial and Senate made arrangements for a fitting reception. Six ships sailed to Ribandar to flank the ship Santa Cruz. The body was in a wooden coffin with damask lining, offered by Xavier's friend Diogo Pereira.

The Vice-Roy, the Archbishop, the Senate and everybody from Old Goa were awaiting the arrival of the body at the Quay of Vice-Roys. It was taken to the Church of S. Paulo on March 16, 1554, at the sound of bells of nearly 40 churches from Old Goa. Such was the crowd that even the Vice-Roy could not have a glimpse of the body.

Before the body could be exposed to the public, the Vice-Roy D. Afonso de Noronha requested his physician Dr. Cosme de Saraiva and Vicar General and Administrator of the Bishopric of Goa, Dr. Ambrosio Ribeiro to examine the body and attest its incorruption. Dr. Saraiva issued a certificate in which he says that he saw and touched all the parts of the body of Padre Mestre Francisco Xavier, specially the abdomen and he could feel the intestines. The body was not embalmed nor preserved artificially - he added. The thighs and other parts of body were fleshy and neither physics nor medicine could preserve it in such a way since he had died one and half year ago and was buried for nearly one year - he certified under oath of his office.

On the left side of the abdomen there was a small hole. Dr. Saraivs says that watery blood came out and Vicar General Ambrosio reported that when he inserted his fingers he could feel something that looked like intestines. Bros. Antonio Dias & Joao Bravo also put their fingers inside the hole and found that the abdominal cavity was full.

The body was exposed for public veneration during three days and on the fourth day he was buried for the third time near the main altar on the gospel side (left) in the Church of S. Paulo. When this Church was demolished in 1560, the body was exhumed and was kept in the Rector's room and later in the room of the novice master, in the chapel of S. Tome, in the sacristy and finally it was taken to the Casa Professa do Bom Jesus.

When Melchior Nunes, Vice-Provincial and Rector of the College saw the body when the coffin was opened on March 16, 1554, he wrote to S. Ignatius de Loyola "I saw with my eyes and touched with my hands; I was incredulous till I saw him." During this first exposition, D. Isabel de Caron, a Portuguese lady bit off the fifth toe of the right foot and another person John Bravo (lay brother) cut a piece of flesh which looked red and dry to put in a reliquary.

He was buried in three different countries having different climates and different soil structure. But the body defied decomposition and putrefaction unlike all those who were also buried in these three different countries.

When the Superior General of the Society of Jesus Claudio Aquaviva had asked for a relic, the Provincial Francisco Vieira decided to send a relic that could provide sufficient evidence for incorruption. On November 3, 1614, in the middle of the night, in one of the internal chapels and in total secrecy Bro. Tome Dias was asked to chop off the lower part of the right arm from elbow till fingers in the presence of Visitor, Provincial, Praepositor and three Consultors. It was sent to Rome and is preserved in a reliquary in the Church of Gesu. On April 27, 1619, the remaining portion of the right arm from shoulders to elbow was cut off. It was divided into three parts and sent to the Jesuit Colleges of Malacca, Cochin and Macau. There is no evidence in support of bleeding on these occasions, although some writers have given vent to their imagination in different ways.

In 1620, at the request of Superior General Vetleschi all the internal organs of the body and intestines were removed and distributed throughout the world including Japan.

In 1630, the coffin was opened for the benefit of Fr. Tranquillo Grasseti, missionary who had arrived from Lisbon and later to provide an opportunity to Fr. Marcelo Mestrilli to kiss the body and dress him with the rich vestment that he had brought and were offered by Queen Elisabeth of Spain.

The coffin was officially opened for public kissing on the occasion of the feast of the saint. In addition, when important dignitaries were visiting Goa they expressed a desire to kiss the body; sometimes they were invited to Old Goa to see the body. How many times the coffin was opened? Nobody knows. It was the private property of Jesuits and it was treated as such.

In those days, there was a great craze for relics. Everyone wanted to posses relics which were supposed to be the link between mortals and the supernatural, so that several benefits would accrue to the owner of relics. As such, several people took pieces of the body or vestments of the saint. Those, in whose possession the body was also took the liberty of distributing relics as their gift.

Such was the treatment to which the body of the saint was subjected year after year. What would be the condition of the body in such circumstances? In 1744, (the Provincial was Andre Pereyra) Fr. Francisco Rodrigues recorded that "no portion of the body of the saint was removed on this occasion." The conclusion is obvious!

The body skin started drying up and the Jesuits were worried that it might be reduced to dust just like all mortals. In 1681, the Provincial Fr. Fernao de Queiros wrote to the Superior General requesting him to issue orders that the coffin should not be opened and that the Archbishop was of the same opinion.

When the coffin was opened in 1686, to shift the body to a new coffin, Provincial Gaspar Afonso sent his report to the Superior General requesting him to issue orders under excommunication so that the coffin should not be opened, since the body was getting desiccated and if the body was exposed in such circumstances the devotion of the people would cool down.

However, the Provincial himself prescribed with penalty of excommunication that the coffin should not be opened. The Vicar General of the Society, Domingos de Marinis confirmed it and promised to get it confirmed definitely by the Superior General. But, in spite of these sanctions the coffin was opened, as for example, in 1692, for the benefit of Apostolic Vicar Spinola and French Jesuit Missionary Joao Bayard.

At the end of 1698, the body was transferred to the new Italian mausoleum offered by Grand-duke of Tuscany Cosimo III.

Finally, the Superior General Miguel Angelo Tamburini issued strict orders, in 1707, that the body should be enclosed in a lead box so that it should not be possible to open it.

As soon as the orders were received in Goa, they were executed by Provincial Manuel de Saraiva around 1708 but Fr. Francisco Rodrigues says that he executed them "with excessive rigor."


It must be also mentioned that he enclosed the body in glass case and not lead case. It is interesting to note that even "on this occasion many relics of the saint were distributed among the devotees."

Most probably there must have been many who were trying to exert pressure on the Jesuits to open the coffin and Fr. Francisco de Sousa, author of Oriente Conquistado and Prepositor of Casa Professa asked Superior General Tamburini that he should order that the keys of the silver casket should be flung into the bottom of the ocean.

What must have been the real reason for such a request? The desiccation of the body seems to be a plausible one, but not the real one, because even now the body has not crumbled into dust. At no stage, there is evidence that rotten smell was emanating from the body. They must have been feeling guilty for distributing, on several occasions, relics of the body and perhaps were worried that a royal inquiry might be conducted. "The state of the body" was not the real reason since private and public expositions were held later and the report was "the condition of the body was good."

When the coffin was opened in 1744, no medical exam was conducted but in the report sent by Provincial Andre Pereyra to Fr. Carbone it is written that they were consoled because the body was in a good condition. He writes that "we have verified with our own eyes the continuation of this miracle after examining the head, that was still covered with hair, the face, the chest, the legs where the tiny hairs can be seen; he does not have the right arm and there is absolutely-no foul smell (mau cheiro)".

In 1751, when the coffin was opened for the benefit of the Vice-Roy, his wife and the Archbishop, former Governor of Goa (14.6.1742 - 24.9.1744) D. Luiz Caetano de Almeida was also given an opportunity to kiss the body; he prepared a report entitled "Noticias de Corpo do glorioso Sam Francisco Xavier", to give a description, of what he had seen, to his wife and children. He writes that the right arm was sent to Rome and only the left arm is visible with a gold staff in the hand. The sacred hand is a bit desiccated but he can clearly see the fingers and nails. The sacred feet are also desiccated and the right one does not have the fifth toe and it was tied with red ribbon. The other toes can be seen along with nails. The sacred face appears to be fresh but whitish. He could not distinguish properly the features; the head was large as well the forehead; the eyes appeared as if they were closed; he could not distinguish the eyebrows and beard since everything seemed to be of the same colour as the face. The cheekbone seemed to be fleshy and the nose was coarse with quite an inclination to the right; the face seemed to be inclined towards the chest.

On April 2, 1755, the king of Portugal D. Jose I, who came to know that constant openings were damaging the body, ordered that the coffin should not be opened without his special orders, what-ever may be the reason, even to please an important person, whoever he might be.

In 1759, the Jesuit monopoly ended when they were expelled by King Dom Jose I, Prime Minister Marquis de Pombal and the Bom Jesus Church along with the Casa Professa and the Body of the Saint were under the control of the Archbishop.

On April 15, 1765, the King instructed the Archbishop that the coffin should have three keys and indicated the key holders. On February 8, 1768, the Government headed by the Archbishop had informed the king that duplicate keys were circulating among those who were staying in the Casa Professa after the exit of Jesuits. Naturally, these duplicate keys were utilized to open the coffin and more pieces of the body must have been removed as relics.

In 1782, a public exposition was held with the aim of scuttling the rumor that the body of the saint had been carried by Jesuits and the body of the deceased Goan Canon Antonio Gomes had been placed in the coffin. But this was not at all correct, as the subsequent medical exams have demonstrated. On this occasion, the coffin was opened in the presence of several eminent personalities (there were no physicians) and minutes were written by Dr. Feliciano Ramos - Secretary of the State. It is said in this "Auto" that there was hair on the head; that the face has all the features but eaten up and covered with skin except on the right side where there is a small bruise; has both the ears and all the visible teeth except one; he has the left arm with the hand covered with hair but eaten up (carcomida); he has no right arm. When the Bishop Governor touched the body underneath the vestments it was noticed that there were no intestines. The skin of the thighs was desiccated. The feet were covered with skin in which the veins could be seen; the toes were with nails and only the last toes of the right foot was missing.

In 1859, the body was examined by physicians. They found the skull covered with skin and hair (rare) on the right side and on the left side without it. The face was desiccated and dark with an opening on the right side (earlier - a bruise) only one tooth is missing among the visible ones; both the ears are there; the right arm is missing; the left hand fingers have nails; the abdominal walls are desiccated and a bit dark; there are no intestines. The feet are desiccated; the 5th and 4th toe of the right foot are missing.

Felipe Nery Xavier who was also present on this occasion wrote that the body appeared to be short as compared to a normal man but this was due to some disarticulations and desiccation. The head appeared to be separated from the trunk but after verification it was found that there was no real separation.
In 1878, the Public Health Officers were also present during the opening of the coffin. They examined the body and found it to be in a good condition.

In 1890, the body was not examined by physicians, neither in 1900, but in 1900; it is only mentioned that it was observed that the Venerable Body of the Saint had not suffered any noticeable change since the time of last closing of 1891. In 1910 the body was examined by physicians who said that the Body was in such a state and condition that it could be exposed to public veneration.

On August 12, 1923, the Body was examined by Dr. Francisco Antonio Wolfango da Silva - Director of Health Services. He examined only the parts that were not covered. The general impression according to him is that the body is desiccated and in some places the bones can be seen. The facial profile, the shape of ears, the eyes with closed eyelids seem to be perfectly preserved. The length of the coffin is 1.52 mts. and the length of the body is 1.44 mts. There are vestiges of hair on the head. There is little hair (beard) on the left side of the face. The shape of ears is perfect but they seem to be calcified. Three teeth can be seen. The thumb of left hand has a nail; the third and fourth fingers have vestiges of nails.

The thighs could not be checked thoroughly but they seem to desiccated but still with some softness.

On January 9, 1932, the body was examined by physicians. The shape of the face can be still seen. Some bones of the skull can be seen. The ears specially the right one are well preserved. On the dorsal side of the left hand the tendons and veins can be noticed. The right foot does not have four toes. The left foot has all toes; the second toe has no nail. All the parts seemed desiccated and there is nothing that indicates putrefaction.

The Body was examined on June 23, 1951, by Dr. Antonio Luis de Souza Sobrinho - Director of Health Services and Dr. Joao Manuel Pacheco de Figueiredo - Director of Medical School. Both the uncovered and covered parts were examined. Some parts of the skull were covered with skin with some hair at skin level and other parts without skin. The right side eyelid could be seen; the nostrils were visible. The facial features were preserved. Rare beard hair at skin level. Right ear preserved. There is no left ear flap. The tendons and veins of the left hand can be seen. Only the thumb has nail. The tendons of left foot are clear but the skin is desiccated. The first and last toes have nails; the other three are reduced to pieces. The sole of the left foot is very well preserved. The right foot does not have last four toes. Some tendons and veins can be seen. The big toe is quite prominent but without nail. A great portion of the sole is well preserved.

When the vestments were removed, it was found that the head was separated from the trunk. (In fact the main cause for this was the inhuman burial in Malacca). The skin of the arm is slowly disappearing. In the central part of the coffin there were many bones. Perhaps at some stage the coffin fell down. There was no abdominal skin. When these bones were arranged, the height from the big toe to the head was 170 cms. and from the heel to the head was 162 cms. These doctors reported that what has remained incorrupt are exactly the parts that were not covered although with signs of slow destruction namely the face, the hand and the feet.

In the beginning of 1955, the Italian engineer, Brandizi Ettore came to Goa and placed in order the bones but did not touch the face, the hand and the feet.

The last known exam was conducted through the glass case by Dr. Joao Manuel Pacheco de Figueiredo - Dean of Faculdade de Medicina de Goa and Dr. Pedro de Ataide Medico-cirurgiao. The changes in the facial region were noticed. The left eyelid was not visible. The skin is desiccated. The earflap of the right side is quite reduced. The flexuous veins and tendons of hand and feet are still visible.

St. Francis Xavier was considered as a saint during his lifetime. After a careful study of his life and apostolate he was canonized. As we said earlier, his body defied the normal destiny of the mortals throughout the centuries and has not yet crumbled into dust. This is an additional aspect of his life but not the main one. He was a man of prayer, a man concerned about the poor, the suffering, the jailed and all the underprivileged. There will not be a better way to honour him than to follow his example instead of only asking favours from him.