They lined up around the block and waited hours just to catch a five second glimpse of a 465-year-old, incorrupt arm.
That arm baptized 100,000 people. It carried the Word of God halfway around the world. It reached out across cultures and into the lives of millions. It was the arm of St. Francis Xavier — missionary, co-founder of the Jesuits, man of God.
The relic is on a cross-Canada tour, and will make a stop in Calgary Jan. 21-22 at St. Albert The Great and St. Michael’s parish. More information can be found on the diocesan website
Between 8,000 and 9,000 showed up at Our Lady of Lourdes, the Jesuit parish in downtown Toronto, on Jan. 14, capping a weekend where the relic — on a month-long tour across Canada — was given superstar treatment by Catholics in the Toronto area.
On Friday, over 3,000 viewed the arm at St. Michael’s Cathedral. The following day it had its biggest crowd — more than 13,500 — at the parish named after him, St. Francis Xavier Parish in Mississauga.
The turnout at Lourdes surprised even pastor Fr. John Sullivan.
“I thought we would have something like Palm Sunday crowds during Mass (between 800 and 1,000), then a couple of hundred during the prayer service,” he said. “It took an hour to get through the pews. That was just to get through the pews. Some people waited for three hours in order to venerate for five seconds. And no one complained.”
The missionaries at Catholic Christian Outreach who organized the tour were less surprised by the numbers in Toronto. They had already witnessed large crowds turn out to venerate a first class relic of St. Francis Xavier in Halifax, Antigonish, N.S., St. John’s, Nfld. and Quebec City.
“We had gone in knowing this was something major and people will come,” said CCO missionary and director of Ryerson Catholic Campus Ministry Nathan Gibbard. “I wasn’t particularly surprised.”
While some came out of curiosity and to take a unique selfie, Gibbard believes the majority were lined up out of genuine religious devotion.
“I was less interested in the people who wanted to be part of the circus,” he said. “My basic response was, ‘That’s very nice, but you’re not going to get a clear shot because that’s not the point. The point is to have that reverence, that moment…. Most of the people did take that moment.’ ”
The large crowds at St. Francis Xavier parish did not surprise associate pastor Fr. James Zettel.
“The majority of the parish’s families trace their Catholic ancestry directly to his ministry (in the Goa region of India); that’s why the church was named after St. Francis in the first place,” he said.
“Venerating his arm was a deeply personal and tender encounter for so many. … Without exaggeration, every metre of usable floor space in the building was filled with pilgrims from the region. Catholicism is very much alive in Mississauga.”