They came by the thousands for a brief but powerful moment to venerate the 465-year-old forearm of St. Francis Xavier.
It may seem curious, but for thousands of Catholics the body parts of the 16th-century saint are considered to be a holy relic, a symbol of grace and faith.
The relic is on a first-ever national tour of 15 cities, organized by the Catholic Christian Outreach, the Canadian Jesuits and the Archdiocese of Ottawa for Canada’s 150th-anniversary celebrations. The tour ends in Ottawa on Feb. 2 when the relic will be transported back to Rome.
On Jan. 21 and 22, more than 10,000 pilgrims – including many from Edmonton and northern Alberta – stood in line outside two Calgary churches to venerate St. Francis Xavier.
During the tour the arm was placed in two Plexiglas cases, and accompanied at all times by a guardian.
“I am someone who really wants to live out my faith. And especially as a convert, I really love it when Catholic culture comes to life and especially in a world where so many of us, at our age, are lost for identity,” said Amberlee Nicol, a member of St. Benedict Ordinariate parish in Edmonton.
St. Francis Xavier baptized tens of thousands of people along the southeastern coast of India and in Japan, and died of a fever in 1552 at the age of 46. He is credited with co-founding the Society of Jesus and his relic is normally kept in Rome at the Church of the Gesù, the home of the Jesuits.
It’s the Canadian Jesuits who were instrumental in bringing the relic on tour. Rev. John O’Brien, the provincial vocations promoter for the Jesuits, said the relic is a tangible link to St. Francis Xavier.
“We venerate relics, which is to say that we give them respect, because we believe that they provide occasions of prayer,” O’Brien said. “That through their very tangibility, they are in a sense a link between heaven and earth in a communion of saints.”
For Joseph Benoit of St. Edmond Parish in Edmonton, the veneration of the relic was even more personal.
“I made this a pilgrimage because I was going through a tough time and I needed to receive the graces; I felt that there would be a
spirit of prayer around the relic through St. Francis Xavier’s intercession.”
The arm is considered incorrupt, meaning the flesh of the saint has not decayed at a natural rate since his death in 1552.
For Sara Francis of Calgary, that is proof that he is more than just a page in a book.
“What an opportunity and entry point to talk about our faith. It’s one thing to read about St Francis in a book or hear about him in a talk, but to actually see the 3D flesh and hand of St Francis, that’s something that goes deeper in your understanding of what it means to be saint.”
St. Francis Xavier led missions into Asia – India in particular – as well as Japan and Borneo.
He is considered the patron saint of missionaries – which is a particular inspiration to Queen Civil, 24, who attends Annunciation Parish in Edmonton. She’s considering becoming a missionary herself.
“This is a time for me to discern what is my calling,” Civil said.
“St. Francis Xavier’s story really tickles my mind! I felt warm inside, and excited when I was reading his story. I want to be a missionary, to be open to God’s call to travel anywhere in the world.”
Calgary’s Bishop William McGrattan said he was grateful the diocese was able to host the relic for two days, and also impressed by the public interest from across the province.
“The large number of people here speaks to the fact that this is something important to them. They made the effort to come out, they made the effort to venerate the relic,” he said. “All of us are called in our lives to emulate the saints, like St Francis Xavier to have that spirit of missionary zeal, of outreach and witnessing to our life of faith.”