Goa church says ‘ola’ to Spanish devotees

By Mayabhushan Nagvenkar, IANS,

Panaji : Goa puts on its best Spanish accent this year as it prepares to say a holy ‘ola’ to devotees of a legendary Basque saint who put the state on the world map back in the 1500s.

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The influential Roman Catholic church in Goa will, for the first time, honour the patron saint of Goa, St. Francis Xavier, and his devotees with a prayer service in Spanish in December during the annual feast attended by over a million devotees from India and across the world.

“We have so many brethren who come to pray in honour of St. Francis Xavier.

Several of them come from Spain, where the saint hails from. The mass in Spanish is for them to feel at home,” Fr Savio Baretto, rector of the church, told IANS.

The saint, who hailed from Navarre, in the Basque region of Spain, heralded Christianity in Goa and was incidentally also responsible for initiating the process for the brutal Inquisition in Goa, which saw the tenets of Christianity imposed by force and violence on Goan subjects.

After his death in 1552 in Shangchuan, China, his body was first ferried to Malacca, Malaysia, and in 1553 stored in the grand Basilica of Bom Jesus, one of the oldest churches in Goa.

St. Francis Xavier, incidentally, was among the first Christian missionaries to travel in Japan and Borneo.

Believers regard it as a miracle that the body has not decomposed for nearly five hundred years. Sceptics point out that the saint’s mortal remains were embalmed to prevent decomposition.

Every year, more than a million believers throng the church complex in Old Goa, located a short distance from the state capital.

Once in a decade, the throng multiplies manifold, when the church exposes the saint’s remains in a glass-topped silver casket to devotees, in an event known as the “exposition”. The last such exposition occurred in 2004.

It is to cater to this frenzy of worship that church authorities in Goa have decided to organise prayer services in multiple languages, apart from Spanish.

“We also have prayer services in Malayalam, Kannada, Tamil too, because we have thousands of worshippers coming from states where those languages are spoken,” Baretto said.

The popularity of the saint is such that even the Goa tourism department has decided to tap Navarre and the Basque region as source destinations for attracting tourists.

Just last year a team of top tourism officials from Goa had visited Spain to come up with mutual ways to promote tourism.

“We are keen on developing a Goa-Navarre circuit and will be travelling to the capital Pamplona shortly. A large number of people travel to Goa and Navarre every year on pilgrimages. We are keen on building a stronger relationship with the region to boost inter-regional tourism between the two countries which have a lot in common,” a top tourism official had said, claiming that both the regions shared “emotional ties”.

Each year, the feast begins Nov 24 and ends Dec 3.

(Mayabhushan Nagvenkar can be contacted at [email protected])