Last month, after a long and meticulously planned journey from a shrine in Padua, Italy, to Springfield, Mass., a relic of St. Anthony arrived at the aptly named St. Anthony Maronite Catholic Church there. My mother proclaimed this news to me with excitement, knowing that Anthony is my favorite saint and the inspiration for my confirmation name. I shared her excitement, but a part of me also was skeptical. How many others felt the same? Would people really come from all over to view a wrinkled piece of a holy man? Was the entire thing just a bit too odd or outdated for Catholics in the 21st century?
Relics are, admittedly, one of the more difficult elements of Catholicism to explain to those unfamiliar with the concept. And yet, the desire to be close to people we admire is universal. We hardly blink when fans reach out to grasp the leg or arm of a rock musician playing to the crowd; we laughingly suggest that we’ll never wash our hand again after shaking hands with a favorite actor.
We even vie for the celebrity equivalent of second-class relics. Once, after seeing Hugh Jackman perform on Broadway, I watched a theatergoer bid (and pay) $10,000 for one of the actor’s sweaty tank tops, worn during the show. (The money was donated to a good cause, but the aggressive bidding indicated that owning the shirt was a major incentive.) On another occasion, my sister saw a teenage girl pick up a chewed piece of gum that had been discarded by Johnny Damon, then the Red Sox centerfielder. The girl lifted the gum, wrapped in a tissue, and gazed upon it with wonder, saying, “This has been in his mouth.”
Both saints and celebrities are often reduced to mere ideas or idols, avatars of their flesh and blood bodies. It is all too easy to forget our shared humanity. Often, we reach out to them because we want to be closer to the qualities they embody. But while our efforts to follow today’s celebrities tend to be motivated by a desire to be closer to their fame, the corporeal reality of the saints who came before us ideally reminds us of the very real challenges they faced in living lives of faith.
Virtual connections proliferate in our everyday lives, so an in-person encounter holds even more weight. Yet an encounter with St. Anthony’s relic isn’t exactly the same as meeting him face to face, and many may find it strange. Alessandro Ratti, the Conventual Franciscan priest who brought the relic from Padua to Springfield, admitted as much in a talk he gave to young Catholics. “For some a relic might seem weird or scary, but we are people of the body,” he told iobserve.org, the diocesan news website (full disclosure: my mother works for the diocese). “We have always thought the human body is a powerful link between those in heaven and those on earth.”
A powerful link was formed among the community, as well. The opportunity to be close to a piece of a saint brought many people closer to each other. Lucy Ramos, the executive secretary for the Catholic Latino Ministry Office in Springfield, told iobserve.org that among those visiting the relic there was a true sense of community. It was “as if we knew each other for many years,” she said, “as if we were related.”
And it turns out my skepticism was misplaced. The organizers of the event estimate that between 15,000 and 20,000 people came to venerate the relic during its nine-day stay in Western Massachusetts. Special Masses were celebrated for Catholics of Italian, Portuguese, Polish, Latino and Vietnamese heritage, including Masses in both the Latin and Marionite rite and one dedicated to the Christians in Syria and Iraq. After an evening Mass of healing, the church stayed open until 1 a.m. to allow all who attended to venerate the relic.
The inspiration and passion surrounding the relic of St. Anthony allowed many to return to their families and communities feeling renewed. Standing in line between an elderly woman who asked for help to lift up her granddaughter to touch the relic glass and a young man wearing gold chains and designer sneakers solemnly bowing his head in prayer, I couldn’t help but feel connected to those around me and grateful for this strange little piece of a saint that had united us. Together we were striving to lead holy lives in the real world. Inspired by the bodily presence of a saint, we set out to work toward becoming more fully the body of Christ.