- Tomb Raider: Looking for St. Francis Xavier
“Francis no here. He go away,” the old man repeated, more deliberately this time, as if addressing a very slow child.
I wiped a bead of rain off my nose. This was a discouraging start to my weekend of discovery. I’d gotten up before dawn to board an early jetfoil from Hong Kong to Macau—the last vestige of Portugal’s imperial past. Now, as I stood on the street in the village of Colaone, with a backpack and camera but no umbrella, a typhoon seemed imminent.
What’s worse, the saint had gone missing.
I turned again to “Macau Churches,” a glossy pamphlet produced by the tourism bureau. St. Francis Xavier Chapel, a compact, baroque-style building, was said to contain “some of the most sacred relics of Christian Asia.” The brochure was tantalizing: “In a silver reliquary is a bone from the arm of St. Francis Xavier.” I tried to get more information out of the geriatric caretaker, but a sudden boom of thunder persuaded him to retire to his quarters.
I splashed back to the bus stop. This was my second setback. I’d hit the first a week earlier, on a hurried daytrip to Macau. The travel guide had said that Xavier’s elbow was on display in the museum behind the remains of St. Paul’s Church, an ancient stone edifice that was ravaged by fire in 1835. But my visit to the museum was a disappointment: there were plenty of chipped statues and pottery shards, but the relic was nowhere to be found.
This time I was determined to find the elusive humerus. After all, I’ve been following the saint’s jigsawed body for twenty-five years. You might say I am obsessed, but I hardly have a choice in the matter: the much-mangled Jesuit left an indelible mark on my Indian family. Consider my name, Naresh Fernandes—part Sanskrit, part Portuguese. Vasco da Gama first landed on India’s southwestern shore in 1498; over the next quarter century, Afonso de Albuquerque consolidated the network of outposts that da Gama had captured, laying the foundations [End Page 4] of Portugal’s maritime empire. Xavier, the patron saint of missionaries everywhere, came after them, recharting India’s spiritual geography as his predecessors had recharted its land. Reflections of Europe’s Iberian Peninsula still abound in Portuguese enclaves along India’s western coast—Goa, Daman, Diu, Dadra,Nagar Haveli, Vasai, and Bombay.
Most Indians call a potato an aloo, but thanks to Xavier, my fellow Bombayites use its Iberian name, batata. The Portuguese taught the people of Bombay to bake leavened bread (as Salman Rushdie once said, “East is East, but yeast is West”). In Goa, Portuguese missionaries set up Asia’s first printing press and crafted the continent’s first common civil code. They built grand cities and stately churches in the image of their homeland. “Quiem viu Goa, escusa de ver Lisboa,” it was said. “If you’ve seen Goa, you don’t need to see Lisbon.”
For many, the bearded visage of Xavier, Portugal’s most famous missionary, is also the face of Portuguese colonialism in India. But Xavier wasn’t Portuguese at all; he was a Basque nobleman whose mission took him through Portuguese trading posts around the world. A friend and follower of Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, Xavier is said to have vowed, “If I ever forget the Society of the Name of Jesus, may my right arm be forgotten.” He never forgot. His right arm is now a Christian relic on two continents.
Xavier departed for India in 1541 as the pope’s special envoy to Asia. The trip lasted thirteen months; Xavier spent six of them in Mozambique, waiting for favorable winds. When he reached Goa, the priest set about preaching and baptizing; he promptly established the College of St. Paul. Later, he made his way down the southern Malabar coast. He reported that his outstretched arms sometimes grew weary from blessing so many people. But after three years in India, Xavier’s zeal began to flag. He was hampered...