KINGSTON, Canada — One of the Church’s most significant relics is making a pilgrimage across Canada this January.
The right forearm and hand of St. Francis Xavier, patron saint of missions, is visiting 14 cities on a pilgrimage initiated by Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa and organized by Catholic Christian Outreach (COO), Canada’s national campus missionary movement. (American readers might be familiar with Fellowship of Catholic University Students — a similar movement established a decade after CCO was founded in Canada.)
The Canadian pilgrimage, which stopped in Kingston, Ontario, Jan. 9-10, has drawn pilgrims in far larger numbers than originally expected. In Quebec City, where cathedral organizers told the relic team to expect about 200 people, 1,500 came to venerate the relic. In St. John’s, Newfoundland, there were 1,800. In the small town of Antigonish, Nova Scotia, home to St. Francis Xavier University, officials at the university thought only a few dozen would be interested. More than 1,000 attended. In Kingston, more than 2,000 people came to pray before the relic. A weekday noon Mass with Archbishop Brendan O’Brien was so full that it looked like Holy Week.
“The saints are examples of the Christian life,” said Archbishop O’Brien. “People look to them as an example of how to live their lives. Different saints have different qualities. With St. Francis Xavier, it was that openness to do God’s will, and it was that zeal to go to a far-off country to preach the Gospel.”
Archbishop O’Brien highlighted in his homily that missionaries today are still working abroad, sometimes in great danger, with more than 20 such being killed in the service of the Gospel in 2017. At the same time, he stressed that the mission today begins at home, with the New Evangelization aimed at Canada’s secular culture.
“The mission today is not just for ‘professional missionaries,’ but for all Catholics,” Archbishop O’Brien said. “St. Francis Xavier inspires us to be ‘missionary disciples,’ to use the phrase of Pope Francis.”
The relic of St. Francis Xavier occasionally travels from Rome. In 2013, it was taken on a pilgrimage across Australia, where St. Francis Xavier is one of the national patron saints.
The Canadian pilgrimage coincides with the 30th anniversary of CCO, founded in Saskatoon in 1988 by Andre and Angele Regnier. St. Francis Xavier is one of the movement’s national patrons. The founders are accompanying the relic on the 30-day pilgrimage across the country from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts, before concluding in Ottawa.
“This is his priestly arm, this is the hand that elevated the Eucharist, that absolved people of their sins, that baptized tens of thousands of people. We don’t know how many — villages, entire villages — were baptized by his hand,” said Angele Regnier. “He healed people, he raised people from the dead — it was that hand that was lifted in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
Among all relics of all the saints, the forearm and hand relic of St. Francis Xavier is one of the most impressive. There are few relics — short of incorrupt bodies — as large.
The body of St. Francis Xavier is incorrupt, venerated for more than 400 years in the cathedral of Goa, the Portuguese colony in India where the Jesuit priest did his most intense missionary work. It is only the forearm and hand that is kept in Il Gesu, the mother church of the Jesuits in Rome.
As the relic travels, it is greeted in some places first by local missionaries and university students. At my chaplaincy at Queen’s University, Newman House, we had an all-night vigil of prayer in the presence of the relic — prayers which no doubt bore fruit in the enormous numbers that gathered in the cathedral the next day.
On Jan. 13, the relic will visit St. Francis Xavier parish in Mississauga, whose history includes many immigrants from Goa. That visit will highlight that many Catholics whose ancestors were evangelized by St. Francis Xavier are now evangelizing in the New World.
The relic arrived in Canada Dec. 26, welcomed by Archbishop Prendergast. It was taken to the annual “RiseUp” conference of CCO, where more than 900 young people participated in a spiritually intense and emotionally powerful vigil with the relic, during which they were commissioned for evangelization by the various Canadian bishops present, including Archbishop Luigi Bonazzi, the apostolic nuncio to Canada.
“Organizing this pilgrimage and cross-country visit has been quite an adventure,” said Archbishop Prendergast. “We’ve faced many challenges along the way, mainly due to the tight timeline in which we organized everything. But that’s nothing compared to the challenges of being a missionary in the middle of the 16th century.”
The relic pilgrimage, which is already proving to be the largest Catholic event of the year in the places it has visited, will continue until Feb. 2, when it will conclude in Ottawa.
Archbishop Prendergast and the Regniers will then accompany the relic back to Rome. Also going with them will be the tens of thousands of written prayer intentions placed before the relic at its stops across Canada, all of which will be taken to a special Mass of thanksgiving at Il Gesu in Rome.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.