Faith Alive

Catholic News Service

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    Relics of the saints continue in the 21st century to attract vast numbers of believers.

    Visits to the tombs of saints call to mind the strengths and virtues that stood out forcefully in their earthly lives. But these visits may also highlight similar, but hidden, strengths of our own.

    The origin of venerating such mementos is not medieval, but biblical. The tablets of the Ten Commandments, Elijah's mantle, even the bones of Elisha (2 Kgs 13:21), all these were relics imbued with God's power and revered by God's people.


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    Why honor a saint's relics?

    By David Gibson

    Catholic News Service

    The human heart is a clear symbol in human language for love. To speak of giving one's heart away, whether in pop music or in the poetry of the ages, is to speak of giving love and sharing life.

    In this light I consider it noteworthy that the heart of St. Andre Bessette of Montreal, who died in 1937, ranks as one of the most valued relics of his life in 19th- and 20th-century Canada.

    A new reliquary containing fragments of St. Andre's heart was created around the time of his 2010 canonization by Pope Benedict XVI. Traveling rather far and wide, the reliquary draws attention to the saint's faith in hopes of inspiring similar faith in others.

    I first learned of the man known widely as "Brother Andre" more than 50 years ago during a visit to St. Joseph's Oratory in Montreal. This is the site of his tomb, as well as the reliquary's home today.

    A college student back then, I remember feeling not only amazed, but somewhat confused upon witnessing the many crutches left behind in the oratory by people who attributed cures from crippling afflictions to the Holy Cross brother's intercession.

    He, however, attributed these cures to the intercession of St. Joseph, to whom he was devoted intensely. Ultimately, his devotion to St. Joseph and a dream of building a chapel named for the saint would lead to construction of the magnificent oratory, situated at a high point in Montreal that allows majestic views.

    Brother Andre held my attention over the years, in large part due to his life's great simplicity. But I always wondered, too, about the decision of his religious-order superiors, who long assigned him to the seemingly undemanding position of a doorkeeper.

    In time I discovered that Brother Andre evoked more for me than the memory of miraculous cures. I learned of his compassion for the sick and all the time he committed to visiting them.

    He became a model for me of a Christian doing the work of Christ in this world.

    The fragments of St. Andre's heart housed by the reliquary are known in the church as first-class relics because they are parts of his physical body. Second-class relics, on the other hand, might include items he wore or used, while third-class relics include objects touched to a first-class relic.

    Today I would not consider a visit to Montreal complete without visiting St. Joseph's Oratory and the tomb of St. Andre, and without setting a little time aside to consider the ministry to suffering people that flowed from the warmth of his heart.

    Can the relics and memory of this saint inspire greater care and commitment to others we encounter who are experiencing illnesses of various kinds that weaken them or diminish their will to engage life fully? I suspect most people know someone like that rather well.

    A visit to the tomb of a saint and the veneration of a saint's relics are not ends in themselves. Saints "proclaim the wonderful works of Christ," and this is why they are "honored in the church" and relics of their lives are venerated, the Second Vatican Council said in its 1963 Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (No. 111).

    The council affirmed in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church that "the authentic cult of the saints consists ' in the greater intensity of our love" that they inspire (No. 51).

    Relics of the saints continue in the 21st century to attract vast numbers of believers. "The drawing power of a relic cannot be underestimated," John Thavis wrote in his 2015 book "The Vatican Prophecies."

    The longtime Catholic journalist mentioned an exposition of bones of St. Therese of Lisieux, better known among Catholics as the "Little Flower," that made its way to a number of nations in recent years, attracting astonishing crowds. "One of her relics even journeyed into outer space aboard the Discovery space shuttle," Thavis recalled.

    He noted that when relics of the 19th-century French saint visited Ireland in 2001, the exposition "drew nearly 3 million people." The crowds included "people who came for physical or emotional healing," he said. "But most were drawn by a vague wish to connect with someone in heaven."

    Visits to the tombs of saints call to mind the strengths and virtues that stood out forcefully in their earthly lives. But these visits may also highlight similar, but hidden, strengths of our own that are more than ready to see the light of day.

    "A relic is something that a saint has 'left behind,'" Bishop Edward K. Braxton of Belleville, Illinois, wrote in a 2015 All Saints' Day reflection.

    "We hold out the hope," he said, "that when we pray in the presence of a relic of a saint's body ' with an open mind, an open heart and an open spirit, we are disposed for the grace of God to help us live the virtues exemplified by the faithful disciple of Christ whose body we venerate."

    (Gibson served on Catholic News Service's editorial staff for 37 years.)


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    'If only I can touch his cloak ''

    By Mike Nelson

    Catholic News Service

    There are those in our church (me, for instance) to whom venerating any sort of object -- a painting, a statue and even a relic -- has always seemed a bit odd, bordering on superstitious.

    "What is going on here?" I think to myself. "Isn't the celebration of Mass more important? Doesn't venerating 'things' violate the First Commandment, 'You shall have no other gods beside me'?"

    Well, a few years ago at my parish, several first-class relics from saints were stolen from their place inside the church. And, like my fellow parishioners, I was quite disturbed, although the relics were eventually recovered and returned.

    Mostly, I was upset that our sacred space had been violated, and that the theft of the saints' remains represented a violation of the basic respect we all should have for the departed.

    But as I thought about it, I began to understand that these relics represent a very tangible connection to those people whose lives are held up as models for us.

    Clearly, that's what relics are, in the eyes and tradition of our church, from its earliest history through today, as noted by St. Jerome in the fifth century:

    "We do not worship, we do not adore, for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the Creator," said St. Jerome. "But we venerate the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore him whose martyrs they are."

    The Catechism of the Catholic Church, and its section on sacramentals, offers additional clarification (in my case, correction) on the veneration of relics.

    "The religious sense of the Christian people," the catechism says, "has always found expression in various forms of piety surrounding the church's sacramental life, such as the veneration of relics, visits to sanctuaries, pilgrimages, processions, the Stations of the Cross, religious dances, the rosary, medals, etc. These expressions of piety extend the liturgical life of the church, but do not replace it" (No. 1674-1675).

    And certainly Scripture teaches valuable lessons, notably in the story of the woman desperate to stop her bleeding (Mt 9: 20-22):

    "If only I can touch his cloak," she thought as she reached out to Jesus passing by, "I shall be cured." Jesus turned around, saw her, and said, "Courage, daughter! Your faith has saved you."

    "Your faith has saved you." Faith, yes, but tied to a tangible sign of the Lord's presence in our midst.

    For two months last fall, the major relics of St. Maria Goretti made a "Pilgrimage of Mercy" to more than 50 cities in the United States. Thousands of people witnessed and prayed before the glass-sided casket containing her skeletal remains.

    At St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Charlotte, N.C., people visited at all hours of the day or night, some after traveling hundreds of miles. "We'd go to Texas if we had to," one man, who had traveled with his family three hours from Raleigh, told the Charlotte Observer. "St. Maria is a good model for us."

    Indeed, many were drawn to view the relics by the inspirational story of Maria Goretti, who at age 11 was murdered by a young man attempting to rape her -- and, on her deathbed, forgave him, proclaiming, "I forgive Alessandro Serenelli ' and I want him with me in heaven forever." Overcome by her forgiveness, Serenelli became a Franciscan lay brother.

    That's powerful stuff, when a conversion, a change of heart, takes place through the intercession of "a good model," however he or she is made real to us.

    Yes, it can happen without venerating a relic. But if even a handful of people in this world can (and do) draw inspiration from the smallest fragment of a saint's skin or bone -- just as many were healed by touching a tassel on Jesus' own cloak -- and renew their commitment to following and serving the Lord, who am I to tell them they are wrong?

    (Nelson is former editor of The Tidings, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.)


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    More precious than costly stones or gold

    By Marcellino D'Ambrosio

    Judaism and Catholicism are very earthy religions. After all, the universe is God's handiwork. He comes to us through his creation, and we give him worship with our bodies -- we kneel and bow before him.

    But we also use many of these same gestures to show not "adoration" but "veneration" for people, places and things associated with him. Israelites bowed before the king, God's anointed (1 Kgs 1:31). But the king also bowed before his mother (1 Kgs 2:19). All Israelites bowed before the Ark of the Covenant, God's footstool (Ps 99:5).

    This biblical background is necessary to understand why Catholics venerate relics. The word "relic" comes from the word for remains or something left behind from a holy person or event. The bones of a martyr, the clothing of a saint, a bloodstained corporal from a eucharistic miracle -- these are all relics.

    The origin of venerating such mementos is not medieval, but biblical. The tablets of the Ten Commandments, Elijah's mantle, even the bones of Elisha (2 Kgs 13:21), all these were relics imbued with God's power and revered by God's people.

    In the New Testament, God's healing power was transmitted through the hem of the Lord's garment (Lk 8:44) and handkerchiefs touched to St. Paul (Acts 19:12).

    The earliest written account of a Christian martyrdom after St. Stephen is very instructive here. Polycarp, an early bishop who was a disciple of St. John, was put to death around A.D. 155 and his body was burned by the authorities.

    The acts of his martyrdom note that Christians gathered his bones, "more precious than costly stones and more valuable than gold," and laid them away in a suitable place where they could honor them and celebrate Mass over them each year on the anniversary of his death.

    Yes, Christians were sometimes to be found deep under Rome, in the catacombs, but they were not there to hide: They were there to honor the relics of the martyrs who were buried there.

    It is no wonder, then, that the bodily remains as well as clothing touched to the bodies of saints throughout history have continued to be venerated, holding a prominent place in the devotion of the people of God.

    But three things must be kept in mind. First, there is essential difference between the worship ("latria") due to God alone and the veneration ("dulia") shown to all that is associated with God and his work.

    Second, all veneration of tangible relics are signs of love, honor and devotion to the persons with whom those relics are associated and, ultimately, to Christ.

    And finally, a relic is not a magic charm that can be counted on to force the Lord to give us what we want. When we are without true faith and oppose God's will, even marching behind the Ark of the Covenant will not assure victory in battle -- just ask the Israelites (1 Sm 4).

    (D'Ambrosio is co-founder of Crossroads Productions, an apostolate of Catholic renewal and evangelization.)


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    The veneration of relics goes hand in hand with the veneration of the saints, those holy men and women who have "competed well," "finished the race" and "kept the faith" (2 Tm 4:7). Relics serve as physical reminders that "we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses" (Heb 12:1) who intercede for us from heaven.

    Saints, while living, often thought about the power of their intercession once in heaven. As she neared the end of her life, Blessed Teresa of Kolkata reassured those who begged her to stay with the words, "Don't worry. Mother can do much more for you when I am in heaven."

    During her last days, St. Therese of Lisieux spoke of her mission of "making God loved as I love him" as only just about to begin, and said, "Yes, I want to spend my heaven in doing good on earth."

    Praying before relics reminds us that a "crown of righteousness awaits" (Heb 12:8) us in heaven, worn by so many who already intercede for us.


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