During the past week the relics of two great saints have arrived in Rome, from their usual places of repose, to be venerated by pilgrims during the Year of Mercy. The glass coffins containing St Pio of Pietrelcina (Padre Pio) and St Leopold Mandic will remain in St Peter’s Basilica until after Ash Wednesday. Already many thousands of pilgrims have made the journey to pray in the presence of the earthy remains of these two great saints.
Criticism and scepticism
While many have been captivated by this unique opportunity, some have questioned this practice and branded it as superstitious medievalism. One writer described the whole week of events as “a macabre spectacle which has cheapened and denigrated the powerful message of God’s Mercy”. He is certainly not alone in his comments.
I must admit that I am a late and reluctant convert to the use and veneration of relics. To me it seemed strange that Catholicism, which centres on the resurrection of the body, should attach such importance to the veneration of a saint’s earthly remains.
I grew up in an Anglican church which boasted a shrine and relic of St Valentine (a fore finger). As a teenage altar server, I viewed this as something quirky, eccentric and very much a hangover from a previous age. During weddings and on other occasions the relics would be displayed for public veneration. I recall leading a procession of these relics with the thurible during such events and hoping that nobody I knew from the normal world would see me. From memory, I was fascinated, amused, embarrassed and repelled in equal measure by the whole practice.
I had come to assume that relics had become a thing of the past after Vatican II. This was confirmed in my mind, when a friend and fellow altar server, acquired a collection of relics from a local Catholic Parish priest who had intended to discard them in the dustbin.
Why relics matter
My conversion to the veneration of relics has been a gradual one. During the consecration of our Church in 2011, I and other members of the congregation were moved by the sealing of the relics into the altar. Beforehand we had a long list of relics to choose from and in the end selected three. We picked saints whose lives had some personal resonance with our own. Each time I now celebrate Mass and kiss the Altar I am reminded of these saints and feel a great sense of continuity and communion with them and the Church.
I have also become aware of the significant role that relics can play in capturing people’s attentions and imaginations. The UK tour of St Therese of Lisieux’s relics in 2009 and St Don Bosco’s in 2013 were unexpectedly significant occasions. People of all ages and backgrounds gathered in huge numbers during the special masses and liturgies. Those who had never experienced anything of the kind before were swept up in the occasion.
In the secondary school where I am chaplain we acquired an altar for the chapel which already had relics in the mensa. The students are always fascinated by this and I can always guarantee lots of questions and interest when I tell them that there are saints relics reposed in the altar. What at first I dismissed as a medieval leftover is actually something which can be employed in evangelisation. The Church today very much considers sacred relics to be important and significant (1983 Code of Canon Law 1281-89). This is something that we must therefore take seriously.
I now realise that the veneration of relics in no way contradicts or undermines the message and truth of the resurrection of the body. The mortal remains of saints are associated with the holiness of their souls which await reunion with their bodies in the resurrection. Therefore the veneration of relics can actually speak of our hope and joy in the resurrection of the body.
How does the veneration of relics deepen our understanding of God’s Mercy during this Jubilee year?
There have been many who have sought to detract from the veneration of the relics of St Pio and St Leopold Mandic. Some also see it as a distraction from the real and challenging work of making mercy known and felt more widely.
During an interview on Radio 4’s Sunday programme on February 7, Peter Saunders, following his departure from the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, made clear his disdain. He talked of being interviewed in a studio next to a place that is “obsessed with parading a corpse up and down”.
Veneration of these great saints can actually deepen our understanding of God’s mercy, rather than detract from it. It is easy and cheap to dismiss such devotion as unenlightened and superstitious. In doing so we denigrate a practice, which has been part of Church tradition from the very beginning.
Both St Pio and St Leopold Mandic lived lives that spoke very deeply of God’s mercy. Their own humility led them to a venerable and meaningful relationship with the Sacrament of Reconciliation that was lived out on both sides of the screen. They knew that to be effective as confessors they had to be exemplary as penitents. A lack of humility and sense of sinfulness has been partly to blame in the challenges the Church has faced over the last few years.
The veneration of these saints can remind us of the great joy that God’s mercy brings but also the massive responsibility and obligations that come as a consequence. We will always be in danger when we lose sight of this.
Perhaps an unwillingness to consider such devotions, in the light of our own sense of sophistication, highlights a lack of humility and presents a barrier to our embracing God’s mercy. Is it this same lack of humility that prevents so many approaching the Sacrament of Reconciliation today?