Catholic News Service photo
Pilgrims pray by and view the body of St. Francis Xavier during an exposition of the saint in December 2004 at the Se Cathedral in Goa, India.
Catholic News Service photo
Pilgrims pray by and view the body of St. Francis Xavier during an exposition of the saint in December 2004 at the Se Cathedral in Goa, India.

GOA, India — Expecting more than 5 million pilgrims for the once-a-decade exposition of the body of St Francis Xavier in Goa, the Catholic Church in the former Portuguese colony is working to ensure the event is "spiritually nourishing" for the visitors.

"This is a wonderful opportunity to proclaim our faith," said Archbishop Filipe de Rosario Ferrao of Goa, the tiny Indian state on the Arabian Sea coast.

"St. Francis Xavier had set a great example of missionary work. The pilgrims will be inspired and deepened in their faith when they see his body and get an opportunity to pray before it," Archbishop Ferrao told Catholic News Service Nov. 21, the eve of the exposition's opening.

"We are making every effort so that the exposition will inspire more faithful to follow the path of proclaiming the Gospel that our patron saint has shown us," he added.

It is the 17th time the saint will be on exposition in Goa. The first exposition occurred in 1782.

Born in Spain in 1506, St. Francis Xavier, co-founder of the Society of Jesus, reached Goa in 1541 as the papal nuncio when the region was a Portuguese colony. After baptizing thousands along the coast of peninsular South India, he left for East Asia in 1545 and returned to Goa in 1551.

During his second trip to East Asia, he fell sick and died at age 46 on China's Sancian Island, Dec. 3, 1552.

According to historical accounts, St. Francis Xavier was buried with two layers of quicklime to accelerate corruption of the body to facilitate transfer of his bones to Goa, as he had desired. However, twice in 1553 the body was exhumed, and both times it had been preserved.

The saint's body reached Goa in March 1554. Until 1635, the incorrupt body was kept in several churches before being taken to the Bom Jesus Basilica. Today, the body is housed in a glass casket on top of a specially built altar mausoleum in the church, visible to the public at all times.

"During the exposition, the relic is brought down and kept for public veneration," explained Father Alfred Judas Vaz, convener of the exposition committee.

"It is a miracle that the body remained intact for centuries. That is why many are eager to see it, though it has 'shrunk' in recent decades," Father Vaz said.

During the exposition, the casket carrying the relic of the saint is ceremonially shifted to the adjacent Se Cathedral, where it will be kept for public viewing through Jan. 4.

Father Vaz said at least 100,000 pilgrims are expected to file through the church daily. Even more are expected during the period ahead of the saint's feast day, Dec. 3.

"For us, the exposition is a celebration of faith and an occasion for renewal of faith," Father Vaz said.

"The fervent veneration of this pioneering Jesuit missionary in Goa and across the world for the past five centuries is nothing short of a miracle in itself," said Melvyn Misquita, senior journalist with The Herald, the English-language daily of Goa, where Catholics account for a quarter of the city's 1.5 million people.

"Goans and other pilgrims will flock in huge numbers not just to catch a glimpse of the relics of St. Francis Xavier, but to remember and admire the life and times of this great disciple of Christ," Misquita said.

While the government is handling security and traffic management and keeping the area around the church clean, Father Vaz said "the challenge before us is to take care of the pilgrims (who) visit and to enrich them spiritually."