Monday, January 05, 2015

Goencho Sahib

Every ten years, the sacred relics (i.e. the incorrupt body) of St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552) are put on display in Goa. The exposition draws millions -- four million, this time, over the 45 day period, 200,000 on the last day alone. The exposition is a massive effort, with hundreds of staff, volunteers, government and security officials working tirelessly for months to make it all go off smoothly. Pilgrims include people from various religions, not just Catholics. In India, a saint is a saint, for everybody.

The line of devotees on Saturday afternoon (photo courtesy Harry Thompson)
My friend Harry had the opportunity to venerate the relics at Sé Cathedral (the historical seat of the Primate of Goa), across from the Basilica of Bom Jesus, on Saturday. He stood in line for 3 hours, and got to spend maybe 20 seconds in front of the casket itself. "Intense," is how he described it. "India intense, but very well organized." He also remarked that he was one of very few Western faces he saw in the crowd. Another friend, Ben, was also there on Saturday, with an elderly, wheelchair-bound, aunt, because of which he got fast-track access, and got to kneel for a full minute in front of the relics. Others were more fortunate -- according to Ben, Vijay Mallya, one of India's business tycoons -- arrived in a motorcade, and was whisked right into the Cathedral. Any Indian function has its separate protocols to deal with VIPs and VVIPs!

Archbishop Pennachio, other prelates and priests with the casket containing the relics, Sé Cathedral.
I was able to arrive in Goa in time for the procession and Solemn Pontifical Mass that formally closed the exposition, on Sunday, Jan 4, 2015, the Feast of the Epiphany in Goa (and most parts of the world). I picked Harry up from his hotel in Panjim and we got to the Basilica by about 7:45 a.m. There were cops everywhere. However, in my white cassock, I had full and unimpeded access. We prayed for a little while in the Basilica, before they closed it down to prepare for the closing Mass. At 8:00 a.m. a Mass in Konkani started in the "pandal" (large tent) just outside the Basilica. One of the Basilica Jesuits showed me a place to stow my backpack, and explained the upcoming schedule. We got a quick breakfast at an Udipi joint up the road, and I grabbed my alb and walked past the crowds to where the priests were gathering for the procession, at Sé Cathedral. Both sides of the street were lined with throngs and throngs of folks, cell phones and tablets at the ready. Khakhi clad cops and volunteers with variously colored badges and lanyards everywhere. I arrived at the Cathedral and managed to venerate the casket for a few moments, before the Nuncio and Archbishop arrived.

At 9:30 a.m. the priests lined up in the Cathedral, and some hymns were sung in Konkani. Cameras went wild with clicking as we exited the Cathedral and followed the procession route to the Basilica. There were several stops on the way, organized by various groups of the faithful, and, it seems, organized around themes such as "family", "social welfare", "association and movements," etc., while a some commentary was read out over a PA system in English and Konkani. (Personally, I would have preferred prayers and hymns rather than the preachy didacticism that, frankly, I doubt was followed closely by too many!) I fingered my Rosary beads, as did several other priests in the procession, all pausing only to grab the occasional photo of the casket with relics behind us ... The crowds were well behaved and extremely restrained and devout -- children atop parents' shoulders, everyone craning to get a look at the casket, cell phones out --
The faithful await the arrival of Goencho Sahib.

At the Basilica, we all lined up at the altar. The casket went right past us, towards the sacristy, preceded by the prelates. Eventually, it would be returned to its spot at the top of the memorial in the right transept. We vested (for most this consisted of throwing a stole over their cassocks), and lined up behind the seminarians for the procession for the Mass. A crowd of some 10,000 faithful waited outside. The Nuncio, Archbishop Salvatore Pennachio was the principal celebrant, with Archbishop Felipe Neri Ferrão, Primate Archbishop of Goa and several other Bishops as principal concelebrants, assisted by a hundred and fifty or so priests. The Mass was celebrated in English, with readings and prayers in Konkani, and the Archbishop's homily, and (the extensive) thanksgiving speeches, as well as the MC's commentary (I find this so tiresome. The Mass isn't a show or a performance!), also repeated in Konkani. The choir was very good, and the music was perhaps the best I've experienced at a Latin-rite Mass in India.

The normal resting place of the body of St. Francis Xavier -- the casket is missing in this photo.
After Mass and a quick thanksgiving in the Basilica, I collected my stuff and coordinated to meet up with Harry & Ben, to head back to Panjim (to meet up with and have lunch with Harry's wife) and then the airport as we had flights to catch that afternoon.

The casket arrives in the Basilica.
The stage set for the celebration of Holy Mass outside the Basilica
It was, of course, an exhausting experience, but it was simply fantastic, and such a privilege and blessing to be able to celebrate the Mass closing this historic decennial event, to witness the devotion of thousands, to feel the joy of the faithful at the blessing God has granted in and through the powerful intercession of this great missionary saint. May his life continue to inspire a deep commitment to following the Lord Jesus as the center and hinge of our lives -- as it was for his --
 and to spreading the Gospel.

The casket being carried past gathered priests inside the Basilica. 
Dev borem korum! Sancte Francis Xavier, ora pro nobis!

A report on the closing Mass from the Goa Herald.

How St. Francis Xavier became Goencho Sahib.

Yours truly, decked out in his white Indian cassock, to meet Goencho Sahib.

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