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Within arm's reach

St. Francis Xavier's 465-year-old forearm has already been seen by 20,000 people in five cities and towns

A public viewing of an ancient Catholic relic, the 465-year-old arm of St Francis Xavier, was held at the Our Lady of Lourdes church in Toronto on Jan. 14, 2018.

There are many things Torontonians will line up for: brunch at a new hot spot, a cool art show, running shoes sold by Drake. A 465-year-old human forearm is not usually among the most popular attractions.

The arm that attracted multitudes over the weekend is not your standard body part, however. It is instead a holy relic for Catholics, as it once belonged to St. Francis Xavier, one of the founders of the Jesuit order and a missionary who spent his life preaching and converting people to Catholicism in Asia in the 16th century.

Thousands of people waited in line at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, located in an unpicturesque corner of Toronto, some for hours, in order to get a fleeting glimpse of the relic. They approached, carrying petition cards inscribed with prayers to the saint and pressing their rosaries to the Plexiglas case. Many dropped $20 bills into the donation baskets, others fives. Taking pictures was discouraged, in the interest of moving the crowd, as was kissing the Plexiglas, in the interest of flu prevention.

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Thousands waited in line for a fleeting glimpse of the relic. The arm will be heading west to Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Regina, Calgary, Vancouver and Victoria before heading east again to Montreal and Ottawa.

Many Catholics have a personal connection to saints, praying to some for blessings and seeking healing from others, so seeing a relic up close can be very moving. "It's a miracle from God," said Majita Pervan after seeing the relic.

In the past, Ms. Pervan has made pilgrimages to Lourdes, in France, but made a much shorter one this time from the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke to see St. Francis's arm. "It gives you peace inside your soul," she said.

The arm is in the middle of a cross-country tour, having already been seen by 20,000 people in five cities and towns, including Antigonish, N.S., home of St. Francis Xavier University. After three days at three churches in Toronto it will move west. The relic will be displayed in Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Regina, Calgary, Vancouver and Victoria before heading east again to Montreal and then Ottawa, where its last stop will be at the Notre-Dame Cathedral on Feb. 2.

The veneration and crowds may seem familiar to modern audiences used to a shinier relic: "The analogy I like to use is the Stanley Cup," said Angèle Regnier, co-founder of Catholic Christian Outreach, who organized the tour alongside Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast. "You take the Stanley Cup across the country and what do people want to do? They want to put their hands on it, and when they do that, the historical imagination goes wild."

The relic is rarely allowed to leave its home in Church of the Gesu in Rome, but Ottawa Archbishop Terrance Prendergast obtained permission from the Jesuit Curia in Rome.

In fact, as the Catholic relic was placed on a flight from Quebec City, the pilot asked Ms. Regnier, 'What have you got there, the Stanley Cup?'"

Well, yes, if the Stanley Cup were not a hockey trophy, but the right forearm of a man who's been dead for more than 400 years. It is considered a first-class relic (the body or bones of a saint) and normally resides in the Jesuit mother church, the Church of the Gesu, in Rome. The rest of St. Francis's body – minus his big toe, bitten off his corpse by a zealous follower – lies in the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Goa, the former Portuguese colony in India, where he was a missionary in the 16th century. According to Church teaching, St. Francis's body is "incorrupt," the designation given to saints' bodies that are said to defy natural decay. (The leathery arm, seen up close, does have the appearance of having hung around for a century or four.)

The relic is rarely allowed to leave the Church of the Gesu, but Archbishop Prendergast obtained permission from the Jesuit Curia in Rome. The relic is insured – Ms. Regnier won't say for how much – and when not travelling in a custom-made duffel bag on its airplane seat or on display being venerated by devotees, is kept inside the safe of the churches or cathedrals on the tour. The entire tour will cost $200,000, said Ms. Regnier, who added she's not sure how the costs will be met. "We're trusting that God will provide."

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The crowds have been provided, at least. Even John Sullivan, the priest at Our Lady of Lourdes, seems surprised at the throngs snaking through the pews at his church. "I thought maybe we'd get 200 people," he said, laughing.

The veneration of relics, many of which are ascribed with healing powers, is an ancient practice in Catholicism, and there are thousands of them around the world.

As Father Sullivan notes, the popularity of a wizened body part might strike some people as odd. "Some non-Catholics might find it strange," he said. "Some Catholics might even find it strange." But, he said, being in the presence of a saint who started out initially resistant to a religious calling, "you can see, from a faith perspective, how God worked in this man's life."

It is Catholic custom to keep a relic under the altar of a church, although very rarely a relic so exalted as an actual saint's arm. "It's a physical contact with people who have given themselves over to God," said Peter Bisson, the provincial superior for the Jesuits in English Canada. Father Bisson, too, was surprised at the size of the crowd. "I'm very humbled and moved to see the faith of the people," Father Bisson said. "It's a sign that the church is alive."

The veneration of relics, many of which are ascribed with healing powers, is an ancient practice in Catholicism. As Thomas Craughwell writes in his book Saints Preserved: An Encyclopedia of Relics, "During the Middle Ages a pilgrimage to a shrine was a popular expression of religious devotion as well as a kind of vacation or road trip." There are thousands of such relics in the world, Mr. Craughwell notes, some authentic, many of dubious provenance (the ones for sale on eBay are likely to fall into the latter category).

Canadian Catholics will be familiar with famous local relics, such as the heart of Father André Bessette, which was famously stolen in 1973 and is now displayed in St. Joseph's Oratory in Montreal. The Martyrs' Shrine in Midland, Ont., contains the relics of 17th-century Catholic missionaries, which have been credited with healing powers by pilgrims.

St. Francis Xavier was one of the founders of the Jesuit order and a missionary who spent his life preaching and converting people to Catholicism in Asia in the 16th century.

It's fair to assume that the well-born Francis Xavier did not foresee that his arm would end up on a cross-country tour of wintry Canada when he attended university in Paris in the 16th century. There, he roomed with the man who would become St. Ignatius of Loyola, whose persistence drew Francis into the priesthood. (Ignatius was the founder of the Jesuit order, and Francis was among his earliest compatriots.) Francis Xavier was sent as a missionary to Goa, and later to Japan. He died of a fever on Shangchuan Island in China in 1552 and was canonized 70 years later.

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For Branwen and Alison Spyker, who had travelled from Hamilton to see the relic, the experience was moving and spiritual despite the crowds. "This is something you're very rarely going to see outside of Rome," said Ms. Spyker, who often watched an animated history of St. Francis Xavier's life while growing up. "It's a big deal."

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