The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Francis Xavier’s Forearm

As Reformation swept Europe, the Roman Catholic Church faced a crisis. How would Rome respond to these upstart Protestants? Would the Church itself reform, or would it re-affirm the doctrines that had sparked this great rift in Christianity? In the wake of the Reformation came the Council of Trent, an ecumenical council that examined Protestant theology and condemned it as heresy. Rome would continue semper eadem, always the same, unwavering on those fundamental doctrines.

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Also in the wake of the Reformation came the founding of The Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, an order of priests that would play a critical role in the history of Christianity. And among the Jesuits, few have had so great an impact as Francis Xavier who is considered by Catholics to be the greatest missionary since St. Paul. Even today pilgrims travel to Goa, India, to venerate him at the Basilica of Bom where his body lies, or to the Church of the Gesu in Rome, where his arm is on display. Francis Xavier’s arm, enshrined in the mother church of the Society of Jesus, is the next of twenty five objects through which we can trace the history of Christianity.

Xavier Arm
Francis Xavier was born in 1506 as Francisco de Jasso y Azpilicueta and spent his early years at Xavier Castle in northern Spain. From his early days he was destined for a career in the church, so in 1525 he was sent to Paris to begin a theological education. After four years there, he and Ignatius Loyola were assigned as roommates. Loyola had experienced a dramatic conversion and soon influenced Xavier to such an extent that in 1534 they vowed together that they would live lives of poverty and celibacy, that they would travel as pilgrims to the Holy Land, and that they would dedicate their lives to missionary work. Ignatius would found the Society of Jesus, and Xavier would be the first to take the order’s vows.

Xavier was ordained a priest in 1537 and three years later departed Rome for the Far East. In the spring of 1542 he arrived at Goa, India, a Portuguese trading port. Several years prior, Catholic missionaries had won a great number of converts, but they had been neglected and had begun to drift away from the faith; Xavier traveled extensively, teaching the existing converts, confirming them in their faith, and baptizing thousands more. He subsequently traveled to Indonesia and even reached Japan where he founded a community of Catholics that survives to this day. As he carried out this work, he distinguished himself from other missionaries by providing for the ongoing pastoral care of his converts, establishing both schools and churches wherever he went.

Xavier’s career as a missionary was to be prolific, but short-lived. In 1552, while attempting to gain admittance to China, he contracted a fever and died at the age of forty-six. While legend once held that he had baptized one million converts, a more realistic assessment might be thirty thousand, a remarkable count nonetheless. He was canonized in 1622 and in 1927 proclaimed a patron saint of missions.

Xavier RelicFollowing his death, Xavier’s body was buried on Shangchuan Island, but the next year was disinterred, proclaimed incorrupt, and re-buried at St. Paul’s church in Portuguese Malacca. Several months later his body was moved once more and this time sent to Goa where it now lies within the Basilica Bom Jesus. All but his right forearm, that is. The forearm, which Xavier used to bless and baptize those who converted to Rome, was detached in 1614 and is now on display in the Church of the Gesu in Rome (though it is occasionally sent on tours so the faithful may have a unique opportunity to venerate him). It is encased within a massive and ornate reliquary.

Francis Xavier’s arm aptly represents Rome’s entrenchment in their false gospel and the rising power of the Jesuits in their crusade to eradicate Protestantism and all other threats. The Jesuits were to be the educational arm of Rome, training both believers and unbelievers alike while proclaiming, “Give me a child until he is seven, and he will remain a Catholic the rest of his life.” The Jesuits were to be the militant arm of Rome in counter-Reform, using any means necessary to battle and destroy Protestantism, leading the persecution of those who turned against Rome. The Jesuits were to be the missions arm of Rome, showing great courage and often losing their lives as they extended Catholicism’s reach through North America, South America, Asia, and beyond.

Xavier Forearm 2Francis Xavier’s arm was used to teach, but it was used to teach a false gospel that denied the central doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone. His arm was used to baptize, but it baptized people into that false church, a church rife with superstition and idolatry, evidenced in the very fact that today people will weep before this relic as they venerate the man. His arm was used in proclamation, but it was also used in persecution, for with that arm he wrote a letter that brought, at his request, a terrible inquisition.

In 1545 Xavier requested that an inquisition be installed in Goa in order to try and punish anyone who had converted to Catholicism and later apostacized. This inquisition would be established only in 1560, several years after his death, but it would be a terrible one. While records were destroyed after the inquisition was formally abolished in 1812, it is thought that more than 16,000 people were brought before it. Many of these lost their lives while many more received lesser punishments in a time so notorious that Voltaire would write, “Goa is sadly famous for its inquisition, which is contrary to humanity as much as to commerce. The Portuguese monks deluded us into believing that the Indian populace was worshiping the Devil, while it is they who served him.”

The Reformers protested against Rome’s false gospel and the Roman Catholic Church responded by entrenching herself in her doctrine and by beginning a great wave of persecution against Protestants. The rift has never healed and, until Rome abandons her unbiblical gospel of grace plus human effort, it never will.

More in The History of Christianity in 25 Objects:

  1. The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Introduction
  2. The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Augustus of Prima Porta
  3. The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Rylands Library Papyrus P52
  4. The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Alexamenos Graffito
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