Touching the Fabric of Life

A shard of bone from the body of St. Francis Xavier—I held it in my hand, gazing at this tiny remnant of a human body centuries old, contained under glass in its small reliquary. This particular relic belongs to one of two collections of relics with which Ihave become familiar at Jesuit parishes where I have lived, one in New York City and one in Washington, D.C. But even scraps of cloth or other materials that might come in contact with the body of holy persons during their lifetimes can be considered relics. In earlier eras, a companion word of slightly different etymology, relict, was used to refer to widows. Carved on the gravestones of some old cemeteries, you see phrases like “Mary, relict of John,” followed by the family name. In both senses of these words, the idea is that something cherished has been left behind here on earth.



As for specifically religious relics, they may belong to a time near our own or, like the relic of Francis Xavier, to the distant past. They are concrete reminders that these same persons once walked the earth just as we do, with the varied gifts and faults of all human beings. What comes to my mind when I have prayerfully handled relics is the beginning of the First Letter of John: “What we have touched with our hands concerning the word of life.” St. Ignatius, St. Francis Xavier and others less well known all had much to say about that “word of life,” expressed in the fabric of their daily lives.

Oscar Romero and Rutilio Grande

But what of those not yet canonized or beatified? Their relics too can have great significance. A friend in El Salvador has told me that the blood-stained vestments worn by Archbishop Oscar Romero have been carefully preserved. He was shot dead in 1980 during the preparation of the gifts at the Mass he was celebrating in the little chapel on the grounds of the Divine Providence Hospital. The Hospitalito, as it is called, is for poor people terminally ill with cancer and is run by the Carmelite Sisters of St. Teresa. The archbishop lived in a little cottage nearby.

Two sisters present at the assassination recently provided a remarkable testimony about what happened right after Romero’s death: “In the Polyclinic [to which the body was immediately taken] an autopsy was done, and I don’t know exactly how it happened, but they gave us the internal organs of Monseñor in a plastic bag. When we arrived back at our community residence at the Hospitalito, we had no energy left, but we decided to bury his organs in the garden of Archbishop Romero’s cottage. We were in such shock that we placed them in nothing more than a cardboard box.”

Three years later, early in 1983, in anticipation of the arrival of Pope John Paul II, the sisters decided to disinter the organs and re-bury them in the Virgin’s grotto next to Romero’s cottage with the permission of the apostolic administrator and successor, Bishop (later Archbishop) Arturo Rivera Damas.

“Our surprise...was great,” they testified, “for when we disinterred it...the cardboard box had disintegrated,” but the plastic bag containing the organs revealed that the organs were intact, “as if the surgery had been done minutes before.” A miracle? Who can say. Bishop Rivera Damas “asked us to guard the organs with better protection, which we have done with much affection and gratitude.” The testimony is signed by the two sisters, Socorro Iraheta and Luz Isabel Cueva.

Romero has not yet been officially declared a saint. His cause was introduced by the Archdiocese of San Salvador in 1993. He has been given the title servant of God, a first step toward being beatified and eventually canonized.

Even everyday clothing worn by a holy person like Romero can be considered a relic. My friend told me how moved he and others with him were as they handled some of the ordinary clothes the assassinated archbishop had once worn. One July Sunday in 2006, he said, “I brought some visiting Jesuit scholastics and young people from my parish to a comedor, a kind of home-based diner where the archbishop used to take meals.” Elvira, the owner, not only spoke of his visits, but also “pulled out a box which contained a cassock and a clerical shirt with Romero’s name on the inside of the collar.” Some of those present there, he said, had an opportunity to touch these physical reminders of a person many already regard as a saint. At the nearby University of Central America, the same friend added, “we also have on display the bullet-riddled shirt worn by Rutilio Grande,” the archbishop’s close friend who was gunned down in 1977 because of his work with campesinos, work the government considered subversive. That murder marked a turning point in the life of the hitherto conservative Monseñor Romero, leading him to a closer focus on the poor of his country and the injustices to which they were subjected, a focus that would lead to his own murder in the presence of the sisters at the cancer hospital’s chapel that March 24th evening at the approach of Holy Week.

Pro, Mayer, Cabrini and Day

I may never see any of those relics in El Salvador, but I have seen and touched those of other persons who also lived in a time close to our own. A scrap of cloth stained with blood from the heart of Miguel Pro is in one of the two parish collections. Like Romero, Father Pro died a violent death—not at the hands of sharpshooters aiming from the back of a chapel in El Salvador, but before a firing squad in the yard of a jail in Mexico City in November 1927. Defying a ban against religious practices by the anticlerical Mexican government, he moved about in various disguises to celebrate Mass clandestinely in private homes and to distribute Communion to those who knew how to recognize him in open spaces like city parks. Not yet declared a saint, Father Pro has been beatified and is thus moving closer to canonization.

Yet another relic of a servant of God in the collection at Nativity Church in New York is a scrap of fabric once in contact with the body of Rupert Mayer, S.J. Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, Father Mayer was arrested by the Nazis for preaching against Hitler’s policies. Held in a concentration camp, he suffered such deterioration in health that camp officials, fearing he might die there and be considered a martyr, had him transferred to a Benedictine abbey under what amounted to house arrest. Returning to Munich after the war, he died (like Romero) while celebrating Mass. Rupert Mayer’s cause is in process. He was beatified in 1987.

And women? St. Frances Xavier Cabrini has a place in the New York collection. The first American saint to be canonized, she spent much of her life reaching out to Italian immigrants and orphans, establishing orphanages and hospitals in New York City and then in other parts of the country as well as abroad. Attached to a ring at the top of her small oval reliquary is an old safety pin, a homely reminder that relics were sometimes worn attached to the clothing—of a sick person, for example, who had a particular devotion to a saint like Mother Cabrini. The safety pin, now discolored with age, makes clear that relics were indeed meant to be touched.

Many now invoke the intercession of Dorothy Day, the co-founder with Peter Maurin of the Catholic Worker movement. She died in 1980 at the Maryhouse Catholic Worker on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Not long ago I visited the room she had occupied there, facing East Third Street. With many of her own books and personal items still in place on the room’s shelves, her presence is almost palpable—all the more because its present occupant is an elderly Catholic Worker who worked closely with Dorothy from the 1960’s until her death. He and a former managing editor of the Catholic Worker newspaper have been sorting through the contents of the room. Several boxes of papers have already been sent to the Catholic Worker archives at Marquette University in Milwaukee. Even personal items of clothing, like the dresses she wore, have been carefully put aside. And there is the hairbrush she used every morning to brush her long white hair in preparation for beginning the day. A relic? At any rate, it has been considered an object worth preserving. Before his death, the late Cardinal John O’Connor introduced her cause, and now Dorothy Day too has been declared a servant of God.

Intercessors, Pray for Us

Then there are the relics of those who—undeclared as yet as blesseds or saints or even as servants of God—are already revered as intercessors who can be called upon for help. A priest during my early years at St. Aloysius in Washington, D.C., was widely considered a saint during his lifetime. He was Horace McKenna, a Jesuit priest who spent his life working on behalf of poor people in Washington and in rural parts of southern Maryland, averting evictions in the city and standing up to restaurant owners in rural Maryland who refused to serve African-Americans. When a young woman whose relative was gravely ill asked for a relic of Horace, I snipped off a tiny piece from the border of a stole he regularly used while celebrating Mass and mailed it to her. After his death in 1982, I often heard people at Mass say, St. Horace, pray for us. One of Horace’s best known sayings was: “Our Lord did his miracles instantaneously, at a word, but his church, his priests, his sisters, his fathers and mothers have to do their miracles slowly.” For those who knew him, it is easy to believe that from his place in heaven, Horace may be providing miracles here on earth; but now they are perhaps taking place “instantaneously.”

Relics of men and women already declared saints, those awaiting beatification or others whom many recognize as saints no matter what the Vatican may eventually decide, provide a sense of the Incarnate Word made visible in the flesh and blood of human beings who put their trust totally in their creator. Through their faith and service to others, especially the poor and marginalized, their relics can strengthen our faith during our own brief life journeys.

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