Please pardon my skepticism. Ten days ago, I went to Temperance, Mich., to see “Treasures of the Church,” a traveling exhibition of sacred relics of the Roman Catholic Church that was in Kenna Hall, the gymnasium of St. Anthony Catholic Church. These relics — about 165 items — are pieces of a saint’s body, often a particle of a bone chip, clothing a saint wore, or something a blessed figure of the church touched.
Since my visit, I’ve been thinking about where my skepticism is placed, and why.
I’m not critical of the believers who were there (more than 150 by my count), turning to relics of people the Church declared as saints, paying reverence to Mary the mother of Jesus by touching an ornamental container, or reliquary, holding a fragment of a veil said to be worn by her, reverently acknowledging a piece of what is claimed to be Jesus’ crib, kneeling before a cross-shaped piece of what a story proclaims is the actual cross on which Jesus died.
Frank Parker of Temperance was moved when the wind blew through an open doorway and tipped over a few reliquaries on a table during the opening presentation by the Rev. Carlos Martins, the priest in charge. Mr. Parker helped to set the relics back in place and discovered that he was handling a relic of St. Therese of Lisieux, the “Little Flower.” That was what he had come to see as a devotee of the saint. I have great respect for him and his personal stories about St. Therese.
Father Martins, 38, shared stories of healings by way of some of those relics. I remain wondering about how permanent the healings were, and how the people’s bodies, minds, or souls might have been made better in other ways of nature.
In his presentation, Father Martin raised one of the common questions about resistance to relics: the seeming disrespect of the Church doing this to a revered deceased person’s body and not letting it rest in peace.
“While dividing and displaying the saints’ bodies may seem strange and unusual, the Church does this to respect the saints,” Father Martins said. “The early Church had to celebrate Mass in secret, Christianity was outlawed, and [worshipers] often did so over the tombs of those who were martyred for their faith. This was out of reverence for them. The Church continues the same practice today.”
After the presentation, we talked about relics not being just a Catholic practice. “Islam has done that with relics of Muhammad,” Father Martins said. “Certainly Buddhism has done that with relics of the Buddha, and even secular religions: sports fans, you know, they go after the jerseys.”
Relics are more common than many realize, with one in every Catholic church altar, Father Martins said in his remarks. But there isn’t knowledge of every relic’s origin. The Rev. Brian Hurley, pastor of St. Anthony, said that he doesn’t know whose relic is in his church’s altar.
“Unfortunately, quite often what they do is they give a relic and put the relic in the stone” in the altar, he said, but the information about it is not given. Father Hurley did make what are called third-class relics of some church crosses by touching them to the reliquaries on exhibit. He’ll be able to say that a cross at his church touched the “true cross” relic on which Jesus died.
Why do I ask for pardon for my skepticism? I had great awe being in a room with such an array of connections to the history of Christianity. But I was not there as a believer in the relics practice. For me, there might have been more thoughts of a museum than the others in attendance. I have seen great works of art and natural history. The world has shrunk, in a way, since the age of the formation of the Christian Church, so that travel to sacred sites is more possible than ever. Going to the Holy Land, to England to retrace Shakespeare’s life, to faraway lands to see rare birds are all modern sacred observances.
People are very different in their religious practices. I hope my respect for those who venerate relics is shown in this column.
I ask pardon because I question their certainty. My questioning is my attempt to stand beside them, not to be in opposition, but rather to recognize our differences.
It’s a privilege to go to many places of worship, to talk to people about their religion or their not being religious. I don’t want skepticism to block my ability to tell others about people’s faith journeys, to try to explain why we’re different, to limit what religion is.
Today, my way of doing that is to acknowledge my skepticism, but to still let faith be known.
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