St Francis Xavier’s right forearm and hand is travelling across Canada this month, evidence of a growing piety of relics. In recent years the relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux have travelled throughout Europe and North America, as have the relics of St Maximilian Kolbe and Padre Pio.

On all such pilgrimages, those coming to venerate the relic greatly exceed the expectations of the organisers. That seems to the case here, judging by early reports from eastern Canada, where the relic has been this week before heading to Toronto and then to western Canada.

Among all relics of all the saints, I daresay that the forearm and hand relic of St Francis Xavier might just be the most impressive. First, there are few relics – short of incorrupt bodies – as large. And of course the body of St Francis Xavier is incorrupt, venerated for more than 400 years in the cathedral of Goa, the site of his most impressive missionary work. It is only the forearm and hand that is kept at il Gesù, the mother church of the Jesuits in Rome.

I can’t think of another relic more suited to the saint. That arm baptised thousands upon thousands in India. Only the sacra lingua of St Anthony compares. The tongue of the great Franciscan preacher was found to be incorrupt when his remains were exhumed some 30 years after his death. It was St Bonaventure himself who reached into the remains to discover the miraculously preserved tongue. The sacra lingua is preserved in Padua, where it is carried in procession on major feasts. Indeed, the Franciscans even have a feast day for the sacra lingua, in addition to the one for St Anthony.

In an age when the Church is emphasising anew her missionary nature, and the priority of missionary discipleship, it can be hoped that the relic of St Francis Xavier, the greatest missionary since the Apostle Paul, might inspire a new missionary zeal.

I have a particular gratitude for the early Jesuit’s missionary fervour. As a son of Goa myself, in whose family the faith has been handed on for as many generations as we can count, it is a particular joy to welcome the relic to our chapel on campus. I cannot know for sure of course, but it might have been that arm that baptised my ancestors, gave them Holy Communion and made the Sign of the Cross over their graves.

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