St. Francis Xavier

Catholic pilgrims have picked up a few tips from Hindu Varkari traditions while visiting Saint Francis Xavier who brought the faith to India centuries ago.

For hundreds of years Maharashtrian devotees, called varkaris (which translates to “pilgrims”), have been making pilgrimages to Pandharpur in order to worship Vithoba, one of Lord Krishna’s avatars.  Walking pilgrimages, like those undertaken by Maharashtrian varkaris, to visit Saint Francis Xavier have become common among Catholics around Goa.  Catholics who are the descendants of those converted by the Spanish saint undertake these pilgrimages.  The sacred relics associated with Saint Francis Xavier are on display at the Basilica of Bom Jesus, located in Old Goa, once every decade, but many Catholics choose to make the four-day trek every year.  Saint Francis Xavier is the man who is credited with bringing Catholicism to that area of the world in the 16th century.

For the pilgrims making their way to visit Saint Francis Xavier, the journey, which is roughly 150 kilometers, is taken as a time to be penitent and prayerful.  It is an experience in religious devotion for the pilgrims and an exercise in faith.  Some pilgrims never finish the four-day journey, instead going back to their point of origin on a bus.  Often walking on bare feet and carrying all of their supplies including many pounds of clothing and food, groups of pilgrims, which can total a few thousand, make their way into Goa using traditional footpaths, arriving in the state on the third day of their pilgrimage.

While the Catholic faith has been around for hundreds of years, the walking pilgrimages, to visit Saint Francis Xavier, have only been going on a few decades and were initiated by Jesuit priests. The Jesuits had adopted the Swami lifestyle of wearing saffron-colored robes and abstaining from meat, as well as living like ascetics, which helped them appeal to and convert the local populations.  The walking pilgrimages were inspired by the popularity of the varkari tradition of walking to Pandharpur.

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