Looking Back: The Relic of St. Francis Xavier in Canada

The CCO group meets with Pope Francis in Rome. Source: Osservatore Romano.

On Sunday, February 4, 2018, I presided at a concelebrated Mass in the Church of the Gesù, Rome. Joining me in this liturgy of thanksgiving for the graces and blessings of the Pilgrim Journey of the Relic of St. Francis Xavier to Canada were Canadian and Italian Jesuits as well as other Canadian priests studying or working in Rome along with the congregation that regularly attends that 7pm Mass.

Mass of Thanksgiving at the Church of the Gesu in Rome on February 4. Led by Archbishop Prendergast, SJ, the concelebrants were Canadian priests in Rome.

My homily spoke of healings that St. Mark mentions in the first chapter of his gospel. Later on, the evangelist generalizes the healing of the woman with the hemorrhage who put out her hand to touch the hem of Jesus’ cloak (Mark 5.27-34; 6.56) and Jesus reveals was healed because of her faith. Then I told of our experience with the right hand and forearm of St. Francis Xavier:

So we have come here tonight to celebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving for the blessings that the Lord has poured out on us who witnessed the graces and blessings which the Lord bestowed through the intercession of St. Francis Xavier.

Veneration in St. Mary’s Cathedral Basillica, Halifax.

The Relic was well-received all across Canada, with the participation of the faithful, religious and clergy far surpassing the expectations of the planners on the local level. It was a journey sponsored by the Archdiocese of Ottawa, the two Canadian Jesuit Provinces and Catholic Christian Outreach (CCO), a university evangelizing ministry whose engagement was extraordinary.

Kingston Archbishop Brendan O’Brien venerates the relic.

From its arrival in Toronto on December 26 to its departure from Ottawa, on February 3, the Relic was brought to cathedrals, parish churches, universities and schools, to a Native Canadian reservation and to a large-scale university prayer service in Canada’s Capital. It has been the source of rich blessings from those who attended.

What was most encouraging for us in all of this was the way university students took on the missionary charism, engaging people who came to see or venerate the Relic of St. Francis to speak of their faith and invite others to share it.

There is great hope for the youth of our country as they develop lives of prayer, read the Bible and share it with others, testify to God’s power in their lives, celebrate it in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the Eucharist and strive to discern God’s will for their lives.

Calgary Bishop William McGrattan venerates the relic.

Of course, the healings through the life and ministry of Francis Xavier during his lifetime and after his death teach us a profound lesson, namely that we, too, are charged with handing on the liberating and healing power of God in Jesus Christ in our age as in ages past.

I want to thank Father D’Adamo for his encouragement of this initiative, and all the entities he persuaded to give us the necessary permissions: the Jesuit Order, the Vicariate of Rome, the Congregation of Saints and the Superintendence of the Artistic and Cultural Goods of the Italian State. But our greatest debt is owed to God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ. To God alone be the praise and glory.

Later in Rome, we met with several senior Church Leaders—including Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet and Jesuit Father General Arturo Sosa— who were encouraged by what they heard happened in Canada.

A major highlight for the CCO delegation that accompanied me in returning the Relic was the opportunity they had to attend the weekly Audience with Pope Francis where they met him, told him briefly about the events in Canada and gave him a large framed plaque commemorating the pilgrimage.

Media interest in the pilgrimage was high.

Close to 80,000 Canadians attended events in 15 cities. Over 250 different news stories were posted by major media outlets in Canada and beyond (even the BBC did a story). In fact, it is estimated that these stories had a total reach of 84 million people through social and traditional media.

Despite the potential that travel plans might be disrupted by winter weather, all flights were on time; Air Canada went to extraordinary lengths to assist us and smooth the journey of the accompanying team.

Cardinal Collins speaks about St. Francis Xavier in St. Michael’s Cathedral Basillica, Toronto.

The bishops and dioceses where the Relic was received showed wonderful cooperation in making themselves available to celebrate Mass or to assist at the veneration. The clergy, too, were most helpful in receiving the faithful in their parishes, hearing confessions and offering teaching on relics or on St. Francis Xavier. One pastor spent an afternoon managing the parking lot challenges at his parish, but considered the visit of the Relic a special blessing for his parishioners.

At the various locales, people were very patient, took time to read the brochures and prayer cards given them and to reflect upon the intentions they wished to pray for, which we brought to Rome.

Now we have entrusted them to a monastery of contemplative nuns who came to venerate the Relic and were delighted to have entrusted to them the many personal intentions for intercession by St. Francis Xavier; they promised to keep these intentions in their prayer.

The crowd at Our Lady of Lourdes in Toronto.

Those who came to venerate the Relic were generous in making contributions to defray costs associated with the travel, printing of materials and other expenses. The Knights of Columbus, besides being present in many dioceses to give help managing the crowds and assuring security of the Relic, also made a major donation to offset the projected deficit of the pilgrim tour.

So far, the CCO organizers have received thousands of comments and expressions of appreciation from people who said that this pilgrimage helped them to grow closer to God and renewed hope in their lives

What we discovered in taking the Relic of St. Francis Xavier across our country is that we Canadian Catholics remain a people of faith and that, as such, we carry out deeds of charity. But, for all that, we very much need a strong dose of the third theological virtue: hope.

St. Francis Xavier Church in Mississauga had the largest attendance for veneration with close to 14,000 in one day.

Everywhere on the pilgrimage clergy and those planning the Relic’s visit initially had low expectations. Planners would say, how many are you expecting and they would say, two hundred. How many turned up? Two thousand! At a mission church, they expected sixty and there were close to six hundred! The general rule of thumb was to add a zero to the estimates.

At the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes in Toronto two hundred people were expected, yet people were lined up around the block with long lines waiting patiently to get in: more than two thousand people. St. Francis Xavier church in Mississauga, where many of the parishioners come from Goa, where the body of Francis Xavier is kept, knew the power of his attraction and expected 12,000; close to 14,000 came to venerate the Relic that Saturday.

Xavier Turland, born January 3, 2018 at the start of the tour is baptized on February 3, the last day in Canada.

Low expectations, of course, led to insufficient volunteers, issues of crowd management and other logistical difficulties.  But there were graces, too; in St. John’s Newfoundland six priests heard confessions for two hours so that the clergy were tired but also overjoyed at such expressions of faith. Similar responses were not the exception but the rule.

A conclusion that may be drawn is that we need to rediscover the virtue, and become people of, hope. And this for the good that God wants to do in our country in these very challenging times. “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then, when you come and pray to me, I will hear you” (Jeremiah 29.11).


Unless otherwise indicated, all photos are courtesy of Angele Regnier and/or CCO.


Terrence Prendergast, SJ is Archbishop of/ Archevêque d'Ottawa and Bishop of/ Évêque d’ Alexandria-Cornwallis.

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