Each year, on the Sunday nearest toDecember 3rd, thousands of people throng the ruins of St. Paul’s Church in Malacca to celebrate the Feast of St. Francis Xavier, a Jesuit priest who had concentrated his missionary work in Asia in the 16th. Century.
Vanitha Nadaraj and Percy D’Cruz of the Star give us the story behind the saint who perfomed miracles.
Xavier’s work and contribution in Asia were so highly regarded by the Vatican that he was made the patron saint of missions, which accorded Malacca, the headquarters of his apostolic work in the region, an honourable status in the Catholic map.
He would walk up St.Paul’s Hill whenever he was in Malacca during his 11-year missionary life in Asia, and spend hours there praying, wrote the late Rev. Father Manuel Pintado, historian and parish priest of Malacca’s St. Peter’s Church.
“St. Paul’s Hill was where he passed nights in prayer, preached the
Word of God, worked miracles, wrote important documents and letters and
even raised the dead,?he wrote in his book
'Voice of the Ruins.'
In 'The Portuguese Missions in Malacca and Singapore', the author, Father Manuel Teixeira, wrote: “St. Paul’s Church was regarded as the missionary headquarters of St. Francis, who used Malacca as a base for his travels to Indonesia and the Far East.?
His Birth and Missionary Work
Francisco Xavier was born to a Spanish noble family in Navaree, Spain in 1497 ?the year Vasco da Gama left Lisbon, Portugal in search of the East. Xavier traveled to Lisbon, hoping to there-on to go to India, which was the “in?place at that time for missionaries. He became one of the first recruits of Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus and the La Sallian Order. Xavier then headed for Goa in India and set foot in Malacca in 1545. He used the then booming trading center as his headquarters as he traveled to various parts of Asia, such as Celebes, Japan and China, preaching to people of various races. He made five visits to Malacca between September 1545 and May 1552. He had traveled 45,600 km by sea and land during his 11 years of apostolic work.
“St. Francis was known as a linguist, able to speak so many different languages and dialects in India, the Indonesian islands and China,?noted Father Pintado.
Power of Discernment
According to Father Teixeira, St. Francis also had the power of discernment. He wrote of an incident where, as soon as St. Francis landed in Malacca for the first time, the locals ran out to meet him after hearing about him from other priests and Catholics.
“Xavier was calling out to the children by their name, asking them news of their father and mother. We ?that is myself and many others ?considered that a miracle, because he could not, of course, have known the names of so many children whom he had never met,?wrote Father Teixeira, relating eyewitness Father Paulo Gomes?account of what had happened that day.
Books and writings on St. Francis are doted with incidents about miraculous conversions into Christianity of locals and foreigners alike. An interesting example is the story of the cross-bearing crustaceans that are popularity known as St. Francis Xavier’s crabs.
In 'A Stroll Through Ancient Malacca', Father Pintado wrote an account of how the crosses on the backs of the crabs came to be. St. Francis and two others were sailing a boat along the coast off Malacca when a storm broke out. They were caught in its fury and were unable to get back to shore.
St. Francis took out his crucifix and, leaning against the boat, dipped it in the sea. The storm immediately ceased but the crucifix slipped out of his fingers and disappeared in the waves.
The following day, all three managed to land their boat on an island. They were walking along the shore when they saw a crab coming out of the water. It was carrying the crucifix upright between its claws.
The crab made its way to St. Francis, who knelt down and bent towards it. It stood still before him, dropped the crucifix and headed back towards the sea. St. Francis then said a little prayer at the spot, thanking God for the recovery of his precious possession.
“Some people refuse to eat such crabs as a mark of reverence to the saint,?said local author, Joseph Sta Maria, who added that Malacca is believed to be the only place in the world where such crabs are found.
Death of St. Francis Xavier
Xavier died on Sanchian Island in south China in 1552. When his body was exhumed and then taken to Malacca, it was found to be intact with hardly any trace of decomposition. The following year, his body was buried in St. Paul’s Church for nine months before it was shipped to its final resting place in Goa. His body remains encased in glass at the Basilicca Bom Jesus in Goa today, still as well preserved as it had been when he died 450 years ago.
Sacred Relics of Xavier
Two sacred relics of Xavier are kept in the St. Francis Xavier Church’s sacristy and are only exposed during the saint’s feast day. One of the two reliquaries contains a piece of skin taken from the foot of the saint while the other encases a fragment of a finger bone.
Today, the bare tomb in the roofless church of St. Paul ?once a great fortress for the Dutch ?is but a silent reminder of this great saint who now draws pilgrims and devotees from Malaysia, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan to Malacca on the first Sunday in December to commemorate his feast day.
Meanwhile, the parishioners of St. Francis Xavier in Banda Kaba in Malacca, the principal organizers of the feast day celebrations, cherish with pride the fact that their patron saint walked their local paths.
Sunday Star December 2 2001.