The relic of St. Francis Xavier visits his university namesake.
Nestled in a small chapel on a snowy January night, pews are filled with worshippers kneeling in expectant silence. A large red box sits at the front of the church atop a wooden stand. As the guardian of the relic moves to lift the cover, he reveals what the parish has been waiting for: the forearm of Saint Francis Xavier. A mixture of murmurs and quiet gasps ripple through the audience: elderly women praying with crucifixes, and small children escaping their mother’s grasp to have a look at the 466-year-old relic. As the bishop instructs his flock on creating a prayerful mindset, worshippers began to line up one by one to have their few seconds in front of the university's patron saint.
On Monday, January 8, 2018, the forearm of St. Francis Xavier visited StFX. The arm is known as a first-class relic because it is a portion of a Catholic saint’s body. It is currently making a tour across Canada, visiting 15 different cities. The relic is normally housed in Rome, at the church of the Jesu, and is very rarely allowed to leave. Luckily, through a joint mission by the Archdiocese of Ottawa, the Jesuits in Canada, and Catholic Christian Outreach, it has been brought on a pilgrimage through Canada.
St. Francis Xavier was born in 1506 into a Spanish noble family. Prior to his call to the faith, St. Francis Xavier was popular and athletic student while attending university in Paris. There, he met St. Ignatius of Loyola, who inspired Xavier’s commitment to Christ. Together, they formed the Jesuits, a Catholic group that spreads the faith through missionary work. St. Francis Xavier is best known for his extensive missionary work in Asia, where he learned the local languages in order to translate the word of God into native tongues. He died in 1552, off the coast of China. During his missionary work, St. Francis Xavier baptized more than 100,000 people, and is often described as the greatest missionary since Saint Paul.
The visit of this relic to StFX is significant for a variety of school communities. Dr. Donna Trembinski of the StFX history department led a round table discussion regarding the significance of relics in medieval times. Relics were used as a method of connecting with God in heaven. Specifically, it was believed that praying to a saint’s relic would lead said saint to communicate that prayer to God in heaven. Relics also served an economic importance for the churches and villages where they were located, as worshippers would travel to visit certain relics that were known to be helpful for different ailments (i.e. illness, poverty, etc.).
In the 8th century, it was established by the Catholic Church that every altar must have a relic beneath it, leading to mass search, recovery, and sometimes invention, of relics. The crusades in the High Middle Ages also led to many relics being brought back from Asia Minor to Western Europe. For historians, the authenticity of relics is often debated. For instance, there are currently four heads of John the Baptist in circulation. However, the Catholic Church insists that relics are more about the belief that a saint is present in the relic than the actual knowledge that the relic is of the saint’s body.
For Angele Regnier, co-founder of Catholic Christian Outreach (CCO), the relic of St. Francis Xavier is not so much about the past, but the future of the Catholic faith. Regnier and her husband, André, formed CCO in 1988, in an effort to spread the Catholic faith to university campuses. Today, they have branches on 15 campuses across Canada. Together with the Archbishop of Ottawa, Regnier asked permission to bring the relic across Canada in honor of CCO’s 30th year and Canada 150.
St. Francis Xavier is also the patron saint of CCO, making this relic even more special for Regnier. Her goal of bringing the relic to Canada was to increase the faith of Canadian Catholics and inspire a deeper conversion to Christ, greater abandonment to God’s will, and healing. The responses Regnier received have ranged from curiosity to deep emotion. Most commonly, Rengier sees the relic inspire deep prayer and spiritual thought: a sign that Rengier’s goals for this pilgrimage have been achieved.
Speaking with Bishop Dunn, Bishop of Antigonish, he hopes that the visit of the relic of St. Francis Xavier will inspire the students of StFX in a way the students can find relatable. Apart from being a godly man and a role model in the Catholic faith, St. Francis Xavier was also a popular, athletic guy who didn’t know where he was going in life when he arrived at university. However, good friends helped him find his calling, and brought him to live a remarkable life. Despite the 466-year time difference, St. Francis Xavier is much like students at StFX today: looking for their place in life and making long-lasting friendships.