The forearm of St. Francis Xavier, patron saint of missions, has embarked on a 14-city tour of Canada. Photo courtesy of Catholic Christian Outreach. 

The holy and uncorrupted arm of an ancient saint is crossing the country in a two-week tour that began this week in Ottawa and Quebec City.

The relic of St. Francis Xavier, whose body lies in Goa, India, will be viewed and venerated by tens of thousands of Catholics as it makes its way from St. John’s to Victoria as part of a tour conducted by Catholic Christian Outreach, a university campus-based religious organization. The arm will also spend a day at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia.

“St. Francis is the patron saint of our organization. We just really love him,” said Angèle Regnier, the co-founder of CCO. “We want to keep the Catholic faith alive for university students. So many young people go to university and in that freedom and all that university life has to give, they walk away from the Catholic faith.”

The forearm of St. Francis Xavier, patron saint of missions, has embarked on a 14-city tour of Canada. Photo courtesy of Catholic Christian Outreach.

It’s a path similar to that of St. Francis, himself.

“That’s what St. Francis was in his day. He was an athlete, good-looking, he dressed well, he danced and partied more than he studied,” Regnier said. “Thanks to the witness of his roommates, after a few years, he came to the realization that not everything that was meaningful was found in just the pleasures of life.”

St. Francis would eventually take a vow of poverty and join the nascent counter-reformation movement in the Catholic church; he travelled all over Asia and baptized thousands of new Catholics as part of his missionary work. (He was also instrumental in setting up the Goa Inquisition, which persecuted Hindus and Muslims in Portuguese India.)

After he died in 1552, St. Francis’s uncorrupted body was returned to Goa, where it remains 465 years later.

The forearm of St. Francis Xavier, patron saint of missions, has embarked on a 14-city tour of Canada. Photo courtesy of Catholic Christian Outreach.

“What’s remarkable about the body itself is that it did not decompose over the last centuries,” said Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast. “Obviously it shrivelled up and dried but it didn’t go through the normal decaying process and that’s a sign of special status.”

Other miraculous deeds were attributed to the saint including numerous cures of strange maladies and delivering holy communion while levitating. By one account, a crab recovered his crucifix after he dropped it into the sea.

“They don’t divide up bodies anymore, but they did in that era,” said Archbishop Prendergast. The holy man’s arm was delivered to Rome, where it is normally displayed in an elaborate gilded case. The relic rarely leaves the city, but the church granted special permission to mark CCO’s 30th anniversary.

The forearm of St. Francis Xavier, patron saint of missions, has embarked on a 14-city tour of Canada. Photo courtesy of Catholic Christian Outreach

The arm will travel between cities in a padded duffel bag in a seat of its own on Air Canada.

Regnier admits it can be difficult to explain to those who are not Catholic the reverence believers hold for the relic.

Catholics don’t pray to the relics themselves; rather, the items are venerated. They are believed to help facilitate a spiritual connection to the saint, who can intervene with God on the petitioner’s behalf.

“We have been doing this for 2,000 years. We honour the bones and clothing of these saints. For us, it’s beautiful to get so close to them, but others might say ‘what are you doing?’ How do you explain it?” she asked, comparing it to the awe many hockey fans might feel when they touch the Stanley Cup.

Being physically close to a relic makes the stories of the Bible and saints vividly real; it also creates a deep sense of intimacy, she said.

“When I had my first experience seeing his arm in Rome, I thought, ‘this saint was a human being, he really lived,’ and it wasn’t macabre. It wasn’t the things that people might think,” Regnier said.

“It’s an approach to prayer; you can talk (to him) as a friend. You’re here, your body is here and this is a really incredible and unique prayer experience.”