Monday, July 03, 2006

Worshipping the Jesuits?

Peter Foster of the Telegraph has a little piece on his blog about visiting the famous Church of Bom Jesu in Old Goa, in the heart of what was once the center of Portuguese colonial power in the East, the Rome of the Orient. [The last time I was in Goa was in 1992, on a college field trip. We stayed mainly around Mapusa. I recall Bom Jesu and the Se Cathedral in Old Goa clearly. Need to get back!]
Most spectacular of all is the Basilica of Bom Jesu whose high altar is backed by a huge 15ft statue of St Ignatius of Loyola, covered in gold leaf and mounted high up in a golden background that rises 100ft at least from the floor of the church to the ceiling.

The church also houses the relics of St Francis Xavier, the patron saint of Goa, who died on a sea voyage to China but whose body (now encased in glass for the faithful to see) was found to have been miraculously preserved when it was repatriated to Goa.
The body of St. Francis [minus one arm which is in a reliquary in the Gesù in Rome, and a toe bit off by a zealous devotee at some point] is carried out in procession on his feast (Dec. 3) every 10 years. I believe the next exposition is in 2014.
But back in that stunning church, the thing that struck me was that I can’t remember visiting a church where a saint occupied the place where most Catholic churches of that scale would hang a huge crucifix, graphically depicting the redeeming sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

I couldn’t help wondering whether, as a member of the recently converted Goan congregation some four hundred years ago, I might not get confused as I cast my eyes up towards the high altar to see not a crucifix but St Ignatius of Loyola.

Just who is being worshipped here? Jesus, or the Jesuits?
Well. I've been to churches that have a crucifix on the altar or even above the high altar but then have a huge mosaic of the Virgin [S. Maria Maggiore in Rome comes to mind]. And certainly, one can talk about popular sites of pilgrimage that emphasize their patron in an exaggerrated manner. The cult of the saints has taken many shapes and forms over the years. In more recent times a needed Christocentric corrective has taken root, I think. However, as is noted of Eamon Duffy in this review of his excellent Faith of Our Fathers,
Two essays are about saints, one on changes in Marian piety over the last fifty years and another titled “What Do We Want from the Saints?” In the latter Duffy mounts a critique of the present model of sanctity—the saint as exemplar, a person who embodies some aspect of the Christian ideal. In the past, especially the distant past, the saints were venerated as prodigies, miracle-workers, intercessors, protectors. The more they were unlike the rest of us, the better. They brought the majesty and otherness of God down to earth and allowed ordinary men and women to see and touch the divine. Hence the importance of relics. The body of the saint was the locus of supernatural power.
Anyway, interesting comments on Foster's blog. [As expected when there is something about Goa and Catholicism, the Goan Inquisition has to feature. I need to do some research on that. I read a book years ago and it was pretty horrific but I don't recall much and there's not much out there on the Net.] [Oh, and do check out William Dalrymple's excellent piece in Outlook India on Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal (the subject of his latest book. More to read!). His lament on the sorry state of the preservation of India's past, which Peter Foster refers to above, is on the last page).

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