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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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