Relics: Vessels of Grace and Mercy
Relics are not just dinosaur bones of old, but a testament to a true and living faith.
By Amber VanVickle
Growing up, my parents had a first-class relic of St. Francis of Assisi. I remember looking at it with the same fascination present when looking at dinosaur bones in a museum: “That’s cool,” my teenage self would say. I remember too, that beyond its physical nature, I was aware that something else was present. Many times I found myself clutching it in times of illness, or touching it with a whispered prayer. Somehow I knew, even then, that within that reliquary something holy and worthy of honor was present.
Many years later, I visited St. Anthony’s Chapel in a small borough of Pittsburgh. St. Anthony’s possesses the largest collection of relics outside the Vatican: 5,000 precious remains of the saints. I must confess that the experience felt reminiscent of my “dinosaur bones” days, squinting through the glass at untouchable reliquaries with indecipherable names and Latin classifications. But what did strike me, even though I felt removed from these once living vessels of the Holy Spirit, was the multitude – the great communion of saints of whose remains must have been so fervently and painstakingly gathered and preserved to not only honor the blessed and holy individual, but to propagate the faith.
Years later, I would find myself milling around my church hall with 400 of my fellow parishioners as we touched and blessed ourselves with the relics of 150 saints from a traveling exhibit, Treasures of the Church. Here I found what God was trying to show me all along, not “dinosaur bones,” but a rich Catholic tradition of our faith that was just as much alive as it was in the early days of our faith, when the first Christians gathered the bones of martyrs from the ashes beneath the stake, to honor them, celebrate them, and disperse them through all of Christendom.
One can only imagine the fervor and the encouragement these relics must have brought to the earliest Christians, as they witnessed God’s power worked through them in the miraculous. Milling around the basement of our church, I witnessed and experienced the same honor and devotion, as we kissed the remains of our brothers and sisters in Christ, as we begged for their intercession and touched pictures of loved ones and rosaries to their reliquaries, as we knelt in utter awe and adoration before a piece of the True Cross, the very same instrument of our salvation, the very same cross St. Helena excavated under the ruins of a pagan temple to the goddess Venus, that healed a dying woman on the spot, proving and exuding its salvific power. We cried tears of joy and thanksgiving as we kissed a piece of our Blessed Mother’s veil, the veil that would have caressed her face and the face of her Son, the veil we begged she would wrap around us. Circling around, we met our own personal saints, saints we’ve loved since childhood (St. Nicholas!), confirmation saints, namesake saints, beloved saints from our time, Pope St. John Paul and St. Mother Teresa, and found new saints to love and offer our prayers.
Relics would never be to me again the dinosaur bones of old, but a testament to a true and living faith. A faith that transcends time, where the old is ever new. Yes, relics are a gift to us from God. They are a gift he has divinely revealed to us in the miraculous he has worked through them since the time when a dead man was lowered into Elisha’s grave and revived, to the time when handkerchiefs were carried from the body of St. Paul and effected healing to all that touched them, to the time of St. Augustine when he witnessed the healing of a blind man in the presence of the relics of Sts. Portasius and Gervasius, to the countless wonders and miracles that are still worked through them today.
Now, our own special collection of sacred relics rests on our mantle. Instinctively, our children approach them with awe and reverence, whispering hushed prayers and venerating them with soft kisses. Daily we speak of them and to them, placing our burdens before them, asking their intercession and inspiration. Looking backward to their lives, these saints move us forward, guiding and inspiring us to a life of holiness. Bridging heaven and earth, this sacred and timeless tradition points us to eternity and reminds us that God is still working and walking among us.