CARBON-DATING RELIGIOUS MYTHS

Margaret Bhatty

"History is history: faith is faith" is the kind of argument the Vishva Hindu Parishad puts forward to refute scholars who say that it is impossible to identify exactly where a god was born since the historicity of both Ram and Krishna is in doubt. And Ayodhya of today is not the same found in the Ramayana.

The truth is: myths not only defy history and geography, they transcend mundane scholarship and belong to a loftier esoteric plain. In the experience of skeptics it takes very little time to demolish a truth, but even persistent efforts cannot scotch a myth, so deeply is it rooted in human credulity. Whether it be a tooth of Lord Buddha, a hair of the Prophet, Ram's footprint in a rock, a splinter from Christ's Cross, an odd assortment of skulls and bones belonging to former saints, the Holy Shroud or the entire mummified remains of St. Xavier, there is profit and gain for the custadians of these relics which the pious venerate with great awe, dropping their money into thoughtfully provided coffers. H.L.Mencken wrote "The most costly of follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind."

The Catholic church has always endorsed the veneration of relics without caring to verify their authenticity. Regional folk-lore and legends have grown round these relics over the centuries until their significance appear to have no relevance to Christian theology. But Pope John Paul II's new policy of "openness", supported by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), declared that the Catholic church was not afraid of Science. It was prepared to submit to its scrutiny. Thus, the holiest relic, the controversial Shroud of Christ, was found to belong to a time between 1260 and 1390. It was, as skeptics always knew, a fake. The bearded face of Christ visible on the cloth, and the red oxide stains corresponding to his supposed wounds had been painted by a clever artist of the Middle Ages. When Cardinal Anastasio Bellestrero, in October 1988, announced the startling news to a crowd assembled in the north Italian city of Turin, he did not call it a fraud. It was described as "a medieval artefact."

In 1968 Pope Paul VI agreed to let Saint Peter's very own chair also be carbon dated. For centuries the devout had regarded it as a symbol of the palpable presence in Rome of that first "Pope". Carbon-dating proved it was a work of the ninth century. These revelations changed nothing for the devout. The painted image of Christ on the fake shourd still invokes veneration.

What we must question is the mentality of the fathers of the church who devised these fakes and perpetuated them as genuine. Which brings us to a controversy surrounding the most sacred Catholic Relic we have in Goa, once regarded as "Rome of the Orient." I refer to the mummified remains of St. Xavier found in the Church of Bom Jesus in old Goa.

Every ten years devout Catholics from all over India and abroad converge on this quiet old town for Exposition of the body of the Jesuit scholar and saint. It is carried to the magnificant Se' Cathedral across the road and returned to its resting place in the Basilica. In 1985 over a million came to pay homage. The influx of such numbers makes the Exposition a huge commercial success for the church, with gift offerings and income from the sale of holy pictures, medals, icons and tracts. The body was first exposed in 1782 and we are told that it stirred the people in such religious emotion that it has now become a regular event.

Born as Xavero in 1506, son of a privy councillor to the King of Navarre, Xavier came from an affluent background. He was educated in Paris and became a lecturer at the College de Beauvais. Greatly influenced by Ignatius Loyala, he helped found the Society of Jesus in 1534 and at 31 was summoned to Rome to work as the first Secretary of the Jesuit order.

The Orient beckoned, waiting to be converted from its heathen ways, and Xavier landed in Goa in 1542 where he founded the first Jesuit mission there. Later, he travelled through India and on to the Far East - to Malacca, the Moluccas and Japan. Accompanied by a Japanese convert, Yajira, he penetrated remote regions, preaching and converting. He had hoped to go to China next but he died of a fever on an island near Macao in December, 1552.

Chinese embalmed the body and two years later it was brought to Goa and placed in a silver casket fashioned by local craftsmen. Despite the humid climate, the body withstood the ravages of time. In 1654, a century later, the French Jesuit Bayard described the corpse thus: "The Saint's hair is slightly black and curling. The forehead is broad and high, with two rather large veins, soft and purple in tint. The eyes are black, lively and sweet, with so penetrating a glance that he would seem to be alive and breathing. The lips are of bright reddish colour and the beard is thick. In the cheeks there is a vermillion tint. The tongue is flexible red and moist, and the chin beautifully proportioned." Xavier was canonised in 1662.

The Basilica of Bom Jesus is a single-naved shrine with a cruciform plan and a classical three-storyed facade. The tomb was made in Florence. the interior of the Chapel is garish with gilt and glitter, wood carving, ikons and paintings. In the vestry are more paintings, and many magically-endowed knick-knacks, along with an odd assortment of human bones. Here I also saw the Golden Rose presented by Pope Pius XII in 1953, refreshingly beautiful. My own impression of it all was of a morbid, unhealthy and over-explicit obsession with death. The place smelled ghoulish.

According to popular accounts, as soon as the saint's body arrived in Old Goa, people actually sliced off pieces of flesh as holy relics. In 1614, the Church took off his right arm and parcelled it to Rome. In 1626 the corpse was further scavenged when its innards were removed and distributed to Catholic centres round the world.

Predictably, myths grew round the corpse. Xavier did not rest from his labours even while lying dead in his silver casket. In 1683, when Goa was threatened by the dreaded Maratha hordes of a neighbouring Hindu ruler, the Governor was unable to think of a way to save the Portuguese enclave. He finally went to the Bom Basilica and placed his jewelled rod of office and letters of appointment in the Saint's remaining hand, deputing his Viceroy. Xavier acted promptly. He raised the siege by inducing the Mughal army to threaten the Marathas from the rear. They hurriedly retreated.

The myth still persists that as long as Xavier is present, Goa is under divine, protection. However, he did not lift a finger of his remaining hand to save the enclave from Indian takeover in 1961, despite the resistance of the Portuguese.

We are told that after 1683 it became a tradition for a retiring viceroy to place his rod of office in the Saint's hand to be delivered to the succeeding official. But each time the casket was opened a little more of the unprotesting Xavier disappeared. Finally the Jesuit Superior-General in Rome ordered that the casket should be sealed forever. When political groups in Portugal decided the Jesuits were becoming too powerful in Goa, they were told to leave the colony. Soon after their expulsion the mortal remains of St. Xavier also disappeared.

However, the devout clamoured for the return of their mascot. Accounts tells of how the episcopal authorities were forced to replace it. A Goan churchman, Canon Antonio Gomes, who died at the time, was installed in Xavier's place. At the Exposition of 1782 it was his corpse, gorgeously decked out, that went on show. Pieces of his soutanes were sold as scapulars.

For generations the Gomes family kept the secret, fearing the wrath of the Catholic church. The blood-stained conversion of Goa to Christianity is well-known. Hindu and Muslim shrines were razed to make way for churches. Conversion went forward on a promise of "the rice bowl or the sword." In 1560 the Holy Inquisition was brought out to stamp out heresy and dissent. But Canon Gomes did not keep as well as Xavier. In time the church stopped speaking of the remains as "the body incorruptible." They were now "sacred relics."

According to a report published in The Sunday Observer five years ago, the Gomes family demanded the remains of their ancestor be returned for proper burial in the family ground in Cavelossim. In 1952 the Patriarch of Goa had the remains examined and under the vestments were found a skeleton, skull and small pieces of skin with hair. But the secret was still kept.

In 1961, when the Indian take-over seemed imminent, Salazar of Portugal ordered the silver casket and its contents be flown out to Portugal. The sacret police failed to carry out the dictator's commands. But the fleeing governor made sure he took his jewelled rod of office when he left the enclave.

In 1974, the Apostolic Administrator, Monsignor Raul Gonsalves, said of the reamins "We can no longer speak of incorruptibility, for what we have left is mainly bones." But he did not specify whose bones they were. In February, 1986, the Pope visited Goa and viewed the remains as those of St. Xavier.

Letters written to the newspapers by believers declare that it matters little whether the remains belong to St. Xavier or not. The important thing is their faith. Would the Catholic church let the relics be submitted to scientific scrutiny and admit to the historical fraud? But if indeed science again blows out another myth, will it make a lot of difference to those who believe? When the Holy Shroud was debunked the formal statement made by Cardinal Ballestrero did not indicate its veneration would end. The linen has been carbon-dated to the 13th century, but the painting of Christ is there. Said he: "The church reaffirms its respect and reverence for this venerable image of Christ." The relics of Xavier may be debunked, but not the Saint himself!


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Last update: 15 July 1998