As the Catholic faith grapples with “slow growth” (some would say decline) in numbers in developed countries, the church faces a crisis of relevance in the modern world.
Not unlike many traditional faiths, one could argue. Attempts to bring the church into the new millennium have been met with varying degrees of success. There’s no attempt at that right now with the crowd at the Basilica. Make no bones about it, relics are not very modern.
They are however, very mysterious, a little creepy, and well, kind of cool. They also hint at an older faith in a time before the reign of science, when the mysteries of life and death were much richer and more present in daily life.
A first class relic will be visiting St. John’s on January 5th. Relics are divided in first, second, and third class; a first class relic being a body part of a saint, from finger bone to femur, or an object used in the Passion of Christ, like a nail from the cross or the crown of thorns. Second class is something a saint owned, and third is the most mundane, something that has touched a first or second class relic. You can make your own third class relic by touching something you bring in with you to a relic you are visiting.
If revering corpse parts seems a little strange, remember lots of cultures do it. If its superstitious feel seems not so Catholic, the idea is that celebrating the saint’s incarnation brings you closer to God because that saint is literally closer to God than non saintly little you, so in petitioning them with prayer, God is more likely to listen.
The forearm of St Francis Xavier, patron saint of missionaries, is the specific relic in question. Regarded as the one of the greatest missionaries since St. Paul, like much of religious history, his character is shrouded in controversy.
He’s everything from a heroic evangelist and co-founding Jesuit to the colonial, discriminatory instigator of the Goa Inquisition, which resulted in everything from imprisonment to being burnt alive for those convicted of heresy in Southeast Asia between the 16th and 19th centuries. Depending who and what you read.
The forearm is on a cross country tour, leaving its home in Rome in its gold and glass casing, visiting the faithful. Devout Catholics are excited to see the arm that baptized so many. This in itself proves faith can make all things beautiful, for photos show a wizened gray arm reminiscent of a 1950’s B movie zombie. No, on second thought it’s not merely reminiscent, it straight up looks like a zombie arm. Which is really quite reasonable as the arm will be barely a month past its 465th birthday post mortem. Francis died on December 3rd 1552 at 46 years old.
Relics are a pretty big deal in the Catholic Church. Our Basilica keeps in line with the tradition of housing relics sealed within the altarstone, and the Shrine of St. Therese (east of the Apse in the Basilica) contains a piece of bone set into the base of the statue. A container for relics brought from the old Roman Catholic chapel on Henry Street is a piece of history built for containing history.
There’s a shady element, as relic smuggling was rampant in the Middle Ages. Relic trading and smuggling are said to have peaked at the same time as the selling of indulgences. Science has busted some relics, but proven others at least accurate in their dating. The other well known St. Francis (of Assisi) was associated with a miraculous 13th century bread drop off, a sack of bread arriving mysteriously to starving monks in a monastery surrounded by fierce wolves. The sack has been dated to around 1220, and contains traces of ergosterol, a mold common on bread at the time.
The lives of saints enjoy less popular currency these days in the bulk of North America, but just a bit south, in Mexico, the story is very different. With homicide after homicide spiraling outward from a seemingly endless and very violent drug war, and poverty affecting nearly half the population, the mysteries of life and death are closer. Luck is always a factor. In this environment, new popular “folk saints” are being created and embraced to serve the needs of the poor and those outside the official churches’ grace due to lives of crime or belonging to social groups deemed sinful.
Jesus Malverde is a Robin Hood type character who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. Santa Muerte , Our Lady of the Holy Death, has risen to prominence in Mexico in the past fifteen years despite being condemned by the Catholic Church. They speak to the reality of those who work at night or in dangerous industries and can grant protection from a violent death and luck in risky dealings, as well as acceptance for those outcast from the mainstream church. As both characters are highly linked with the drug trade, they are known as Narco-Saints.
While these Mexican “folk saints” have not been canonized , the energy and devotion they inspire in present day people and the solace they offer to those outside the margins is interesting food for thought. Clearly saints still can be not just vital, but fascinating, full of lessons not just about what we feel to be good , righteous and divine, but also about who we are , how society is changing and how we come together and find acceptance as humans. Maybe that’s why relics are still pretty cool.