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Gregory HillisApril 19, 2024
Photo via iStock

I was sick the last time I was in Rome. It was October 2019, and I was in the city for the canonization of the 19th-century English theologian and convert to Catholicism, Cardinal John Henry Newman. In addition to attending the Mass at which he was to be canonized, I had hoped to explore the city. Unfortunately, I developed a fever soon after the Mass and spent most of the following week in bed at the apartment I rented, recovering from whatever virus I had contracted.

Four years later I was in Rome and was once again sick. This time, though, I’m not suffering from a virus but from cancer. Four months ago, I learned that I have cholangiocarcinoma, a rare form of cancer of the bile ducts. As I write this, although I remain hopeful, my prognosis is unknown and I’m confronting my mortality more directly than ever before. This is one of the reasons I’m in Rome. Shortly after my diagnosis, I told my wife Kim that something within me yearned to get to Rome one more time. The yearning was visceral, so much so that I had difficulty expressing to myself and to others what it was specifically I needed from the city.

Over the week I spent in the Eternal City, something close to comprehension emerged. Rome is filled with churches, and these churches are filled with relics—bones or other body parts of saints. Sometimes the relics are small, little more than a sliver of bone in a tiny reliquary. Sometimes the relics are contained in tombs beneath altars. And sometimes entire bodies of saints are on display in glass caskets. Relics are everywhere in Rome, and as I wandered in and out of churches, I realized that I had needed to travel to Rome in no small part because of these relics.

I realized early on in my life that I loved relics. The first relics I ever saw were at St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai in Egypt. I was an undergraduate student visiting the monastery—the oldest continuously inhabited Christian monastery in the world—as part of a class trip to Israel and Egypt to study early Christianity. There are remarkable treasures at St. Catherine’s, but what I remember most vividly is seeing the relics of St. Stephen of Sinai, a sixth-century hermit. His skeleton is displayed upright, dressed in full monastic habit, while his surprisingly fleshy hands—he is considered to be incorruptible—hold prayer ropes.

I had little exposure to relics before this, but while I was initially surprised to see this dead monk on display, I didn’t react with incredulity or disgust. As I stood before St. Stephen, I recognized that the monks at St. Catherine’s monastery understood their community to include both the living and the dead, both the monks walking the monastery in their habits as well as the motionless bones of this habited monk in his glass enclosure. In a way I couldn’t express at the time, I experienced something beautiful, even transcendent, gazing upon this skeleton.

I fell in love with relics that day.

This was why, when I entered St. Peter’s Basilica for the first time during this visit, I didn’t stop at Michelangelo’s “Pieta,” however beautiful it is, nor did I take even a moment to soak in the grandiosity of the place. I made a beeline to the altar of St. Jerome, in which the mortal remains of Pope St. John XXIII are kept. Pope John XXIII inaugurated the Second Vatican Council, which began in 1962. Pope John didn’t live to see the end of the council, dying of cancer in 1963. He was known as the Good Pope and had a reputation for sanctity. In preparation for his beatification in 2001, church officials exhumed his body and discovered that his face and much of his body were remarkably well preserved. His entire body is now on display in a glass container under the altar.

Although I have a deep respect and love for the Good Pope, especially given my love for the profound theology and ecclesiology contained in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, I’ve not had a particular devotion to Pope John—until now. This was a man with whom I have very little in common. I’m not Italian, I’m not a priest. But like the Good Pope, I have cancer, and I wanted to spend time with him.

Perhaps it strikes you as strange that a person with life-threatening cancer would decide to spend time gazing upon the corpse of a man who himself died of cancer. Most of the people lining up to take pictures of his body didn’t appear to be doing so because they had some devotion to Pope John. Indeed, many made faces suggesting they found the Catholic penchant for displaying bodies to be at best wacky and at worst grotesque. It’s not that we are obsessed with the macabre, though I understand how veneration of relics could be misinterpreted in this way. Rather, love for relics emerges out of what I think are the best theological impulses of Catholicism, hitting upon the very heart of what Christian theology is all about.

Our theology of relics tells us something beautiful and profound not only about God but about what we believe about materiality itself. There is a tendency within Christianity in all its forms to fall into the trap of denigrating the body as evil or as a fleshly prison for a soul that cannot wait to burst its earthly bonds. Sometimes such denigration of the body is subtle. It takes the form of elevating sins related to the body, particularly related to sexuality, over and above other sins. It also manifests itself in the ways in which we occasionally talk about the “salvation of souls,” as if the soul is the only part of humanity that experiences salvific transformation. Moreover, this perspective leads to a disparagement of the created order itself, manifested in the exploitation of the earth about which Pope Francis—and before him Pope Benedict XVI—warned us. If we are simply souls awaiting release from our bodily entrapment, then the material created order reveals nothing of the God who created it.

However, the incarnation of the Son of God gives the lie to this kind of thinking. God manifests the goodness of matter by becoming matter in the person of Jesus Christ. The temptation to minimize the humanity of Jesus was one faced and addressed repeatedly as Christian doctrine developed in the early centuries of Christianity’s existence, and the temptation has not gone away. There’s something unsettling about the notion of a God who takes on human embodiment, with all its messiness and death. Life in this world is difficult and complicated, and our inclination is to search for a way out of it by focusing our attention on a God and an existence that is entirely otherworldly, a God who is utterly transcendent and unchangeable. But Christian theology has insisted that God’s transcendence is only one part of the divine equation. The profound depth of divine love meant that God “became flesh and dwelt among us’ (Jn 1:14). Our materiality thus became not only the means of our salvation but the primary manner by which God would become known.

In a talk he gave to the novices at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, the American Trappist monk Thomas Merton tried to instill in his listeners the reality that God is present in and through all things. “We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent,” he said, “and God is shining through it all the time.” He continues: “God manifests Himself everywhere, in everything—in people and in things and in events and so forth.” The problem, however, is that we are often so distracted that we cannot see God in these things. We don’t see God in nature. We don’t see God in other people. And we don’t see God in a sliver of a saint’s bone or in the body of a pope who lived his life well.

I didn’t gaze upon and pray before the body of Pope St. John XXIII to contemplate my own mortality, suffering as I am from the same disease that took his life, though I could not but think about my own bodily demise in that moment. Rather, I saw in Pope John the truth that despite the pope’s infirmities (as well as my own), God is manifest in our embodiedness and even in our illness and suffering, not in opposition to it.

This is an important point for me to consider these days. It can be difficult not to feel that my body is betraying me just when I most need it not to do so. I have a wife I love to whom I have been married for 25 years and with whom I want to spend my old age. I have three sons I adore, who have their whole lives ahead of them; I want to be around to see how they will each navigate the world. I’m not particularly scared of death but I am not eager to rush toward it, and the cancer makes me feel like my body is scarred and polluted by something that seems only to want to destroy me.

But gazing upon the mortal remains of Pope John XXIII, a man whose life was taken by the disease I am facing, I could not but experience the presence of the God who became flesh and dwelt among us. While it is true that I have felt tremendous frustration and anger related to my disease, it is also true that I’ve experienced in my illness that which so many before me have expressed—that God is particularly close to those who suffer. The Incarnate Word not only became flesh; he suffered and died. The God we worship, therefore, did not just sanctify materiality through the incarnation. God also suffers alongside each of us as one who experienced it. 

As I knelt before the body of Pope John, I realized that God is not made manifest only in what we consider beautiful and good. God is also seen and experienced in suffering, in death, in the fragments of saints found all throughout our churches, in the corpse of a saintly old man who called the Second Vatican Council, and even in my own body, afflicted as it is.

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