Each year, on the Sunday nearest to Dec 3, thousands of Catholic and non-Christian pilgrims and devotees from all over Malaysia throng the ruins of St Paul’s Church atop St Paul’s Hill, at the centre of Malacca’s Historic City, to celebrate the Feast of St Francis Xavier, a Jesuit priest who had concentrated his missionary work in Asia in the 16th century while devoting the hill as his apostolic work base.
Traditionally, it is the parish church of St. Francis Xavier, built in 1849 in Banda Kaba, that organises the annual feast day celebrations.
This year, the five-day festivities commenced with a three-day early evening devotional and prayer service at the church, followed by a late evening Eucharistic celebration conducted at a specially erected altar sited at the rear of the saint’s empty tomb amid the ruins of St Paul’s Church, on the fourth day.
The finale was held at the saint’s namesake establishment of St Francis Institution open-air quadrangle in Banda Hilir.
Bishop Paul Tan of the Malacca-Johor Diocese along with local clerics Frs. Stephen Ng, Peter Ng, Anthony Chan, Bernand Wong, Francis Lim, Micheal Mannayagam, Ravi Micheal and Deacon Anthony Chua con-celebrated the one-and-a-half-hour late evening thanksgiving Eucharistic service.
This was followed by a candlelight procession along a 2km road route led by a float bearing a lighted statue of St Francis Xavier.
Close to two thousand pilgrims, devotees and local church religious members and laity leaders took part.
The procession moved along the upper reaches of Jalan Banda Hilir, Jalan Chan Koon Cheng and Jalan Banda Kaba before winding up at the side compound of St. Francis Xavier’s Church.
It is said that St. Francis’ missionary work and contributions in Asia were so highly regarded by the Vatican that he was made the Patron Saint of Missions, which accorded Malacca, the headquarters of his apostolic work in the region and a honourable status on the universal Catholic map.
In the book The Portuguese Missions in Malacca and Singapore authored by Fr. Manuel Teixeitra, he wrote “StPaul’s Church was regarded as the missionary headquarters of St Francis, who used Malacca as a base of his travels to Indonesia, Flores and the Far East.
He made five visits to Malacca between September 1545 and May 1552.
He had travelled 45,600km by sea and land during his 11 years of apostolic work in the region.
The would-be saint was born as Francisco Xavier to a Spanish noble family in Navarre, Spain in 1497, the year Vasco da Gama left Lisbon in Portugal in search of the East.
Xavier travelled to Lisbon, hoping thereon to go to India, which was the “in place” at that time for Christian missionaries.
He became one of the first recruits of Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits).
Xavier then headed for Goa in India and eventually set foot in Malacca in 1545.
He used the booming trade and spice centre as his missionary base as he travelled to various parts of the south-east Asian region, Celebes, Flores, Japan and Taiwan preaching to people of various nationalities.
Described as the “Apostle of the East” and the “Patron of Missionaries”, Xavier died on Sanchian Island south of mainland China in 1552.
He was buried on the isle and later exhumed, and body taken to Malacca and interred at St. Paul’s Hill for nine months between March and December 1553.
Subsequently, the body was moved by a trading ship to Goa’s Basilica Bom Jesus, where it laid until today.
He was declared a saint on March 12, 1662.
Today, the bare tomb in the roofless church of St. Paul is but a silent reminder of this notable saint who now draws pilgrims and devotees as well as tourists from all over Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan to commemorate his feast day in early December and visit vestiges of the saint’s tenure in the historic city.
Two sacred relics of St. Francis Xavier are kept in the St. Francis Xavier’s church sacristy, and are only exposed during the saint’s feast day.
One of the two reliquaries contains a piece of skin taken from the foot of the saint while the other encases a fragment of a finger bone.
The St. Paul’s Hill Complex, now an Unesco Heritage Site, mirrors a different “complexion” for the state’s “conquerers” of those yesteryears whenever St. Paul’s Church is brought into focus.
To the Portuguese, it is was a place of worship and the hallowed grounds where St Francis Xavier walked and preached.
To the Dutch, it was a Protestant church, a burial ground for members of nobility as well as a fortress.
While to the British, the church and hill was an artillery bastion and lookout point commanding a wide view of the Straits of Malacca.
As noted historian and former parish priest of St. Peter’s Church in Pengkalan Rama, Fr. Manuel Pintado, in his writings in his book A Stroll Through Ancient Malacca noted that as for the Catholic populace in the state, they cherish with pride that St Francis Xavier walked local paths and byways between 1545 and 1552 while preaching the Christian gospel.