Oh When the Saint
Francis Xavier's hand
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Narthex, nave, chancel, apse: the church seems to be in good order. A queue stretches the length of the aisle. Outside, Sunday-night trams rumble past in the spring rain. Inside, Jesuits in black look on as frail grandmothers and parents with wriggling infants step forward and kneel before a tall glass-panelled wooden box. The queue moves slowly, and there is plenty of time to read the helpful explanatory pamphlets. In the box is a reliquary, and in the reliquary the forearm of St Francis Xavier.
Xavier – original Jesuit, missionary to the Orient, known for his zeal for souls – died in 1552 and was buried on the beach at Shangchuan, off the Chinese coast near Macau. Some months later his miraculously preserved corpse was dug up and, the story goes, taken to Malacca for reburial, where it rested a while before being shipped out to Goa. It’s now in the Basilica of Bom Jesus, near Panaji, where it’s revealed for public veneration once a decade. (A taxidriver there once tried to explain the convoluted story to me – “Page 851!” he shouted, pointing at my Lonely Planet.)
The body has a stump. In the early 17th century, some enterprising friar severed the right arm below the elbow, claiming it for head office back in Rome. Now, almost 400 years later, the saint’s forearm and hand have arrived at All Saints Church, Fitzroy, on a blocked street opposite some dismal beige commission flats.
A few large icons decorate the white interior. jesus nazarenus rex judaeorum hangs above the altar, Mother Teresa on the western wall and Fitzroy’s own St Mary MacKillop on the eastern. It seems Xavier is particularly remembered by those who hail from the lands of his mission – faces from India, Asia and Africa make up half or more of the congregation. The pamphlets insist that the relic is a reminder of a holy person rather than a magic talisman, but at the same time enumerate the miracles – plagues ended, the blind made to see – that have accompanied the sacred forearm since its early days of independence. At the front of the queue a Jesuit hands out postcards showing a statue of Xavier, which many of the worshippers then touch against the glass case, in the hope of acquiring some residue of grace.
October marked the beginning of a papally ordained Year of Faith, and also saw the Catholic Synod of Bishops meet in Rome to plan ‘The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith’. You might reckon that a billion Catholics is enough, but a man doesn’t get to be Pope by thinking small. Even in Australia, where a quarter of us ticked the box marked ‘Catholic’ in last year’s census, the church wants more of our souls for its Lord. To this end Sydney bishop Peter Comensoli flew to Rome and, with the permission of its keepers at the Church of the Gesù, booked the wizened limb the seat next to his on the flight back to Sydney. Then the pair began a ten-week tour of Australia, sponsored by Le Pine Funerals.
The next morning there is a mass, complete with more Jesuits, nine wimpled nuns and divers ecclesiastics gathered in the apse. Incense wafts from the clanging thurible. The priest in milk-white chasuble sermonises that the hand is the one with which Xavier blessed and baptised tens of thousands across three continents, sagely neglecting to mention that it’s also the hand with which Xavier burnt temples, turned children against their parents and wrote to the King of Portugal to request the establishment of the Goan Inquisition, which led to 200 years of torture, persecution and murder in the name of God. Fishers of men, Christ asked for.
From Melbourne, the hand will continue its clockwise tour of Australia, reaching Geraldton in November before heading around the Top End and back down to Sydney. It will have little effect on the state of the Catholic Church in Australia. At the time of writing, the Church was in the news for more familiar reasons, as yet another child-abuse scandal came to light.
At the front of the queue I take a card and kneel. As Thomas Browne asked, “Who knows the fate of his bones, or how often he is to be buried? Who hath the oracle of his ashes, or whether they are to be scattered?” Not St Francis Xavier, for one. The relic looks grotesque: shrunken grey skin wrapped around a tiny pitiful paw, the wrist trailing off to bare tan bones, a remnant that might long ago have been left to rest in peace.