In April 1988 I received the following letter dated 7.4.88 from Mr. Tormod Roe, OLE VIG VGS, N-7500 STJOKDAL, Norway.
"I have got your address from the Skeptical Inquirer. In one or two books I've read recently about Indian Saints, mention has been made of the famous Catholic Saint Francis (or Francois) Xavier - patron saint of India who lived in the first part of the 16th century - and who has his big cathedral in Goa.
Has there ever been any examination of the claims that his body has (almost) not deteriorated and is preserved by some supernatural means (i.e. God's grace) and has there been written anything about the topic from that point of view.
Hope this isn't too inconvenient!
Sd. Tormod Roe"
This letter infused interest in me to verify the claims of the Catholic Church that the body of St. Francis Xavier buried in the church of Bom Jesus did not deteriorate and was incorrupt.
I wrote to my friend in Goa to visit the church and send me all available literature on St. Francis Xavier. The book St. Francis Xavier gave me the church's account of the life of St.Xavier and his incorrupt body. Mrs. Margaret Bhatty visited Goa and did research on the incorrupt corpse of his and her findings are published in this issue.
To write the book P.Rayanna S.J. had followed particularly the book "Saint Francis Xavier by James Bodrick S.J. and in the bibliography thirty seven books are mentioned on St.Xavier.
To find how far the claims of the church are true one has to go through the following excerpts:
Fr. Francis Xavier died in the night between Friday and Saturday, 2 or 3-12-1552, aged 46 years, 7 months and 26 days.
At Sancian where Francis died, a piece of Flesh - one finger length was cut.
In Malacca he was again burried. As the grave was found to be too short, they pressed the head over the breast, thus breaking the neck. They then filled the grave with earth, which was hard. So they thumped it down with heavy weight, thus inflicting further injuries on the body.
The grave was opened in August 1553 by Juan de Beira and he noted that the nose was crushed, there were bruises on the face, and a sharp stone had made a wound on the left side.
The body was brought to Goa on 16.3.1554.
Fr.Nunes Barreto undertook a voyage to the south and at Bhatkal in North Kanara went on board of the ship which was bringing the corpse of St.Francis.
At Goa the coffin was opened for inspection by the Viceroy and other dignitaries, civil and ecclssiastical.
Manuel Teixeira who went with Fr.Barreto who inspected the body of St.Xavier at Bhatkal in the ship has reported that a piece of cloth hid his face as the nose was bruised in the grave at Malacca, the arms were crossed on the chest, the hands and feet were bare, but in tact with flesh and skin which was a bit blackened by the lime with which they were covered in the first burial.
But the learned and the sophisticated among the clergy and laity gave the opposing and natural explanation that it had been embalmed and therefore the body being viscerated, leaving the chest and abdomen empty.
The Viceroy Dom Affonso de Noronha ordered an offical medical examination of the body. Doctor Cosmas Saraiva his personal physician and Dr. Ambrosio Rebeiro, the Vicar-General examined the body.
"I felt and pressed all the members of the body with my finger, but paid special attention to the abdominal region and made certain that the intestines were in their natural position. There had been no embalming of any kind nor had any artificial preservative agents been used. I observed a wound in the left side near the heart and asked two of the Society who were with me to put their fingers into it. When they withdrew them they were covered with blood which I smelt and found to be absolutely untainted. The limbs and other part of the body were entire and clothed in their flesh in such a way that, according to the laws of medicine, they could not possibly have been so preserved by any natural or artificial means, seeing that Father Francis had been dead for a year and a half and buried for a year."
"I felt the body with my own hands from the feet up the knees and about all the other parts of the body. I certify that in all these parts the flesh was entire, covered with its natural skin and humidity without any corruption. On the left leg a little above the knee on the exterior there is a little cut or wound, a finger length, which looked like a hit. All round the wound there oozed out a streak of blood gone black. And much above in the left side near the heart there is a small hole which looked like a hit.
Through it I inserted my fingers deep as I could and found it hollow. Only inside I felt some small bits which seemed to me like pieces of intestines dried up due to the long times the body lay in the grave. But I smelt no corruption although I put my face quite close to the body. The head rested on a small chinese damask pillow leaving on it below the neck some thing like a stain of blood similar to that on the leg, faded in colour and turned black.
To others who come to see the body, they show only the hands and feet and a part of the legs and arms. But I, who am a true witness, saw the body unshrouded and with priests and brothers wrapped it up in another sheet. I assure you that it emitted a wonderful and sweet odour. I myself put one of my hands into the stomach and I found it full because they had not drawn out the intestines at his death or afterwards, and what I found there was all like coagulated blood, smooth and soft, which looked reddish and smelt sweet.
Both the above texts are signed and dated 1556, more than two and half years after the examination - the one of Saraiva on November 18 and the other on December 1. But in the Spanish text of Teireira only Saraiva's report is dated, and that too without the exact day - November 1556.
The body remained in the church of St.Paul's College till this was pulled down in 1560 to make room for a bigger one. The coffin was shifted from room to room till it found rest in the sacristy of the new church. By 1613, however, it left St.Pauls.
The incorrupt body of Xavier suffered not only many indignities but also many injuries and violences from thoughtless friends and admiring devotees. They shed his blood five different times as enumerated by Francisco de Souza, not indeed in testimony of the Faith but in that of God's providence in preserving his body incorrupt.
We already know how the servant who was sent to exhume the body from the desolate island of Samcian cut off a piece of flesh of a finger's length from above the left knee of the body and a jet of blood gushed forth as from a living body.
We also know how at Malacca the body was trust down a grave too short for it and how the head was so pressed over the chest that it broke. And ever since, the head retained that drooping position as can be seen from its photos old and new. There ensued a rupture of the skin on the nape of the neck, through which again an abundant jet of blood flowed out.
And when rough earth was rammed down the grave over the body unprotected by a coffin, a deep cut resulted on the left cheek, the nose and the left side of the chest were injured. From all these wounds blood oozed out. How much? Nobody paid attention to it. Only the napkin on the face was noticed to have been soaked with fresh blood. Fourthly when the little outer toe was bitten off in Goa, again blood flowed out. Lastly and fifthly, at the medical examination by Dr. Cosmas de Saraiva blood covered the fingers of two Jesuit Scholastics who were made to trust their fingers into the wound on the left side near the heart.
How much blood flowed out at all these wounds there is no way of telling. In a living body bleeding is stopped by its natural reaction and mechanism. In this dead but incorrupt body, however, natural reaction did not operate.
Further in the living body loss of blood is soon made up from fresh supply of it through food. Francis Xavier's body had no such natural supply. The blood that was lost was lost for good and was not replaced. Apparently the blood was greatly drained out already by the judicial examination by Dr. Ambrosio Ribeiro, Vicar General of Goa. Already certain intestines were felt to be dry.
Except for the big toe, all the other toes are now missing from the right foot. The little one was bitten off in 1554 by a Portuguese lady called Dona Isabel de Carom, as she was anxious to have a relic of the Saint. That was only the beginning of the body. At the time of its official inspection prior to the exposition of 1782, the Inspector-General of Goa declared that the relic was with him at home. Part of it is still in possession of his descendants in Portugal, and the rest of it reached in 1902 its native Castle of Xavier. After the exposition in 1890, one of the toes fell off. Archbishop Valente placed it in a crystal case in 1894, which is kept in the Sacristy of Bom Jesus and is offered to those who want to kiss it. About the two other toes no reliable information is available. But it is known that during the Exposition of 1910 two joints of the fourth toe, which were hanging on a thin skin, fell down and then Patriach, Dom Mateus de Oliveira Xavier, placed them on 17 Feb. 1911 in the reliquary already existing in the sacristy. Even now one can see two bits of bones in the reliquary which the pilgrims go to kiss.
The right hand was cut off on two seperate occasions. The first operation took place on 3 November 1614, by order of Father General Claude Aquaviva. The arm was cut off at the elbow and sent to Rome in the following year. It is kept in a silver reliquary and venerated in the church of Gesu. A small piece of this relic was sent to Malines, Belgium. The second amputation took place on 27 April 1619. The rest of the right arm with the shoulder blade was cut off at the order of the same Fr.General in order to satisfy the request of the Jesuit Province of Japan for a great relic of its first apostle. For Japan was then in the grip of a fierce persecution.
The upper arm was then sent to Japan. The shoulder blade was divided into three parts, one for each college of Cochin. Malacca and Macau. These relics were lost when the Dutch took Malacca in 1643 and Cochin in 1663. And only the one of Macau is still "kept today in the seminary of St.Joseph in Macau, in a beautiful reliquary of solid silver, 72 cm. in height and duly authenticated, containing a good part of the shoulder of 12 cm., including the top part of that bone with the forearm".
During the exposition of 1952 a dried skin of one leg was hanging, Dom Jose da Costa Nunes, the then Patriach, later on Cardinal, cut it, and out of it many small relics were made and placed in small reliquaries. In 1964 at the request of Fr.Ayres Fernandes, Parish Priest of St.Xavier's Chruch, Dabul, Bombay, a piece of this skin was offered to that church by Bishop Francisco Rebello, then Auxiliary to the then Archbishop, Patriarch Dome Jose Alvernazx, and in charge of the Archdiocese of Goa and Daman.
In 1556 St.Paul's College had already a reliquary containing some hair of the Saint, evidently taken out from the coffin.
Worst still, by 1636 they had removed all the internal organs, lumped them together and distributed them as relics both in the East and West. Authentic records of these relics speak of them as taken from the breast, from the intestines, from the flesh, and from the interior organs. No wonder, the rest of the body gradually desiccated and decayed. Pious vandalism has succeeded in ruining the integrity of that holy body which the forces of nature respected!
We have seen above that the incorrupt body of St.Francis Xavier was often examined by competent authorities, both civil and ecclesiastical. At the first inspection, eighteen months after the death of the saint, the body was still fresh and even retained moisture.
At the time of the first amputation of the arm in 1614, however, according to the report of an eyewitness of the operation, the body was found indeed "beautiful and whole". Some of the priests present suggested to the Provincial that they should not proceed with the operation if the body bled. They found the right eye open and as fresh as to seem to be alive. So too were the lips that spread the Good News of Jesus and the fingers which held so devoutly the Secred Host. But the body was dry and the skin entire, as were the hair and the vestments. A brother tried to pull out a toe, but he did not succeed. This state of desiccation seemed to have lasted a long time. For we have an eyewitness description of the body in about 1654. About that time Bishop Espinola was consecrated in Goa as the Vicar-Apostolic of the East. A french Jesuit, Pere Joseph Simon Bayard, happened to be there as his secretary. The new Bishop desired to see for himself the state in which the body of St. Francis then was, and in great secrecy, for fear the populace might swamp the church as they had done on other occasions, the shrine was opened after midnight. For an hour and a half Bayard and the Bishop closely examined the body in the presence of the Viceroy and three of his officials, feeling the flesh and flexing the limbs. Bayard's account of this experience, written to his brethren in France, contains the best description of the appearance of St.Francis Xavier ever written." After a compliment to Goa which, he said, yielded nothing in magnificence to the proudest cities of France, with the sole exception of Paris, and when he had pictured the magnificence of the silver shrine gleaming with countless jewels, he continued:
"The Saint's hair is slighly black and curling. The forehead is broad and high, with two rather large veins, soft and of a purple tint, running down the middle, as is often seen in talented persons who concentrate a great deal. 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 a bright reddish colour and the beard is thick. In the cheeks there is a delicate vermilion tint. The tongue is quite flexible, red and moist and the chin is beautifully proportioned. In a word, the body has all the appearnces of being that of a living man. The blood is fluid, the lips flexible, the flesh solid, the colour lively, the feet straight and the nails well formed. The loss of two toes left a darkish trace on the right leg. But for this, there can be found no other body so clean and sound as the body of the Apostle of the Indies.
But by 1698 the desiccation had gone so far as to leave the bones loose. Consequently, the authorities in Rome ordered the holy relic to be enclosed in such a way that it could be seen only through a glass case and never directly touched. The Superior of the Professed House of Bom Jesus, the above-mentioned Francisco de Souza, after informing the General of the Jesuits that his orders had been executed, namely that the relic had been locked in a casket, that two of its keys had been sent, one to the Rector of Rachol and the other to Bassein, requested that he might be allowed to cast the third key which was with him into the depths of the sea. And why? The good man feared that, if the people were to perceive the real state of the body and yet clothed in priestly vestments, they would accuse the Jesuits of fraud.
There was no valid reason for him, however, to be so pessimistic and to sound the alarm. The holy body had been seen to be incorrupt for over 150 years by innumerable people of all classes and closely examined many a time. We have still a number of reports issued after such inspections. The fact that the body is now dried up and shrunken in size is no proof that there had not been a miracle during that century and a half. Nor does the miracle necessarily demand that the body should remain in the incorrupt state till the end of time. All those who were raised to life from the dead by the saints or by Jesus himself, like Lazarus, eventually died again, which fact, of course, does not invalidate the previous miracle.
The miracle of incorruption has no longer any raison d'etre. The body is no longer intact. Corruption, however, has never touched it.
Nor this case of desiccation of the incorrupt body anything unique. This phenomenon of miraculously incorrupt bodies remaining fresh only during periods of time is rather common among the cannonized saints of the Church. Eventually, many of these bodies desiccated and some of them even crumbled into dust. This strange phenomenon is borne out in the case of three out of the four who were canonized together with Francis in 1622, namely St.Isidore of Madrid, St.Ignatius of Loyala, St.Phillip Neri and St. Teresa of Avila. Except Loyala's, the bodies of the three other saints were incorrupt as St. Francis Xavier's at the time of their canonization. Eventually desiccation affected also the other bodies.
Just as right angle to the Professed House of Jesus on its north-east side stands the facade of the world-famous Minor Basilica of Bom Jesus - famous not only for its architecture and for the treasures of art it contains, but mainly as the abode of the incorrupt body (THOUGH NOW TO BE CALLED ONLY HOLY REMAINS) of the Apostle of the Indies - St. Francis Xavier, of the Society of Jesus.
Inside the MASTRILLIAN SILVER CASKET RESTING ON THE Florentine tomb, both forming the second best mausoleum in India, nay in all Asia, lies now the crystal urn containing the mortal remnants of what was once the incorrupt body of St., Francis Xavier.
After the exposition of 1952 D.Jose de Costa Nunes, Patriarch of Goa, decided that the sacred relic should no longer be touched directly by the pilgrim because of its deteriorating state.
The engineer busied himself for 10 days in transfering the holy relic from the wooden coffin into the crystal urn. He was however given to understand not to make up the relics with any wax or plastic material as done in some permanent expositions of relics of certain saints. It is curious to note how Italians turn up at every important stage in the history of St.Francis Xavier's Shrine! And on 13 February 1955 the lid on the crystal urn was set and sealed with the seals of the Patriarch D.Jose Vieira Alvernaz, and the Governor-General, Paulo Benard Guedes, on each side and at the feet of the Saint's relics.
The present state of the holy remnants is testified to by two medical men: Dr.Joao Manuel Pacheco de Figueiredo, ex-Dean of the Goa Medical College, who was actually examining it for the third time, and Dr. Pedro de Ataide, physician. On 12 February 1975 they examined the relics through the glass case for half an hour. They found greater changes in the face. The left eye no longer protruded. The eyelids cannot be distinguished. On the exterior they still form part of the face whose skin seems to be dry, withered and rugged with some spots of decay, and the hairs of the beard are sticking in the chin. In the angle of the lower jaw there is a spot of decay in the skin, revealing clearly the bone in a fresh condition. The outer right ear looks rather atrophied. In the hand and feet they could still see the flexuous veins and tendons. The right heel is detached but kept in position with the rest of the bones by a piece of wire, The colour of the skin of the parts - that are bare is clayish.
Strangely, it is the extreme, the expose and bare parts of the body of the Saint - the head, the feet and the left hand that are preserved intact so long. Even now they retain their human resemblance though they look dried-up and parchment-like.
The rest of the skeleton is covered over in priestly vestments - the alb and the chasuble, which rests crumpled up on the left shoulder bolstering up the head.
In the beginning the body was exposed to the veneration of the faithful on the anniversary of his death. Especially was it so after the canonization of the Saint in 1622. Later on, as the desiccation of the body went on increasing, and as the crowds of devotees began to grow in numbers from year to year, the superiors of the Professed House of Bom Jesus became more and more averse to expose the holy relic to public veneration, fearing perhaps untoward incidents. They, therefore, by dint of representing the difficulties prevailed upon the authorities in Rome to issue orders to enclose the relic in a leaden coffin with three keys in the custody of three persons in three different places so as to make the opening; of the coffin as difficult as possible. Yet, apparently, this arrangement did not work out to their satisfaction. They, therefore, procured another order from Rome never to open the coffin under pain of excommunication.
These arrangements worked satisfactorily from 1707 to 1744. For thirtysix years the coffin was apparently never opened.
On 12 December 1744, the Viceroy and the Archbishop were invited to come and venerate the holy body. The previous day the coffin had been opened, the body taken out to be dressed in the new vestments sent by the Queen of Portugal - alb, maniple, stole and chasuble and cap - and placed in a new coffin. The old cap was sent to the queen. Nobody except those two high dignitaries, was allowed to enter the church whilst they were at their devotions. It was especially noted in the report of these proceedings that no unpleasant smell whatever was perceived on the occasion.
A similar incident occured in 1751. The new Viceroy and the new Archbishop wanted to see the holy relic. The coffin was opened for veneration on 16 March 1751. The outgoing Governor was present. He has left the impressions of the body in a long report. He found that feet and hand intact but dry, the face still fresh, with its hair and beard in place, in spite of the pessimistic description of the state of the holy relic supplied to the Father General in Rome by Francisco de Souza more than 40 years before.
A sinister rumour began to spread among the people that the Jesuits had taken away the body of St.Francis Xavier, leaving the empty coffin behind. How they could have achieved this feat when they were arrested suddenly and deported as criminals and prisoners, nobody bothered to ask. To reassure the public mind, both the civil and ecclesiastical authorities decided on this short exposition.
On 1 January they had an official inspection of the body. According to the report issued then, they found the body vested in sacerdotal robes, the head intact, with enough hair on the skull, which is visible; the face shrunken but covered with skin, with the trace of a small contusion on the right side; both the ears intact, all the teeth, except a missing one, visible; the left arm and hand shrunk but covered with skin; the rest of the body entire but without intestines, as the Archbishop ascertained by passing his hand below the vestments; the thighs and feet shrunk, but still covered with skin, the veins being visible; the toes still had their nails, though one of them was missing. The authorities were satisfied that the body was in a fit state to be exposed to the view of the people.
II Exposition: 3 December 1859 to 8 January 1860.
III Exposition: 3 December 1878 to 6 January 1879.
It was during this exposition that a photo of the body in its coffin was taken for the first time. As such this photo is an invaluable document as to the state of the body at the time and it was in the same state in 1922.
IV Exposition: 3 December 1890 to 1 January 1891.
V Exposition: 7-10 December 1900.
VI Exposition: 26 November to 28 December 1910.
VII Exposition: 3 December 1922 to 7 January 1923.
VIII Exposition: 3 December 1931 to 10 January 1932.
IX Exposition: 6-17 May 1942.
X Exposition: 3 December 1952 to 6 January 1953.
At the end of this exposition it was decided that the relic should no longer be touched by the pilgrims directly; so it was enclosed in a crystal urn in 1955, as related before.
XI Exposition: 14-31 December 1961.
XII Exposition: 24 November 1964 to 6 Jan. 1965.
Due to the false rumours started by interested agencies that the relics would no longer be seen, there was continual influx of pilgrims especially from Bombay. Not to disappoint them, the glass case was left in the sacristy of Bom Jesus from the 7th of January, when it was placed in the silver casket on the marble Mausoleum. Those who came after that could only get a glimpse of the face from a distance. At last the definitive closure of the relics took place on 20 January 1965.
XIII Exposition: 23 November 1974 to 5 January 1975.
As was remarked above, before many public expositions of the Saint's body a medical examination preceded. This time it followed the exposition. On 12 February 1975 Dr. Joao Manuel Pacheco de Figueiredo, Ex-Dean of the Medical College, Panjim, and Dr. Pedro de Ataide, physician, examined the sacred remains through the glass case for about half an hour, the Dean examining it for the third time. They found greater changes in the face. The left eye no longer protruded. The eyelids can still be distinguished. On the exterior they still form part of the face whose skin seems to be dry, withered and rough with some spots of decay, and the hairs of the beard are sticking to the chin. In the angle of the lower jaw there is a spot of decay in the skin, revealing clearly the bone in a fresh condition. The outer right ear looks rather atrophied. In the hand and feet they could still see the flexuous veins and tendons. The right heel is detached but kept in position with the rest of the bones by a piece of wire. The colour of the skin of the parts that are bare is clayish.
The secred relics of St.Francis Xavier were enclosed is a glass case on 13 February 1955; there can be now no difficulty in keeping them exposed to the view of the public. The relics are not hermetically sealed, as many thought before; the top lid can be opened by removing the screws; this is how the glasses are cleaned from the inside, as it was done after the 12th and before the 13th expositions in order to render the relics.
Since the relics are now permanently exposed, one does not see the need - at least for the purpose of letting people see the relics - of any further public and solemn Expositions.
From Narendra Nayak, Microwave Station Road,
Mangalore 575 006.
Do you remember a place where one night a few years back you gave vibhuti to one tea shop keeper who fell at your feet? At that time we were returning after a program at Kundapura. May be it was in 1986 or so.
That place is Padubidri where this 'miracle' has been happening. About ten of us in two cars went there. Since then, the divine light did not turn up - we did a few miracles and explained to the people how they could be led by illusions and hallucinations.
Our program are now all over Karnataka. I am mobbed at each and every place. Thousands attend our program wherever it is held. A video film has been made recently and is now being edited.
In Dakshina Kannada too our activities are picking up. Wherever I go, I have given copies of Indian Skeptic and asked them to subscribe. Some of them have. I do hope that you will get more subscriptions as our lecture demonstration goes to more and more places.
Have you any plans of coming this side? I have given a few lectures in the Kerala border even. Now there are some requests from places near Cannanore. I had told some boys of an engineering college at Coimbatore to contact you for a talk. I had given them your address too. Hope they have done so.
Have you written to Indian Express, Bangalore about the SSSnake business and the Rs.3000/- motor bike? I have done, and there is no reply so far.
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Last update: 14 July 1998