I was not able to get to see the relics of St John Bosco, as they came no nearer than Liverpool, but I was able to see St Therese's when they were at Lancaster, and very moving that was.
But in the discussion of the significance of relics, (eg on this morning's Sunday programme on Radio 4 when they were talking to people at Westminster Cathedral) I thought there was a lot missing.
Why are relics so important - and so moving - for Catholics? It is not just about being reminded of the saint and his or her good example. There is something much more going on here.
Firstly, we are reminded not just of their holiness of life, but also of their achieving their eternal destiny: we are in the presence of a physical reminder that we are all called to be saints, that it is possible to achieve that vocation, and that this individual has indeed done that.
Catholicism is of course the religion of the Incarnation: the collision of the Divine with the created. Saints are the natural (or rather supernatural) result of that: Christ humbled Himself to partake of our humanity, so that we could become sharers in His Divinity.
So the very physicality of the relic is important: ours is not an ethereal or purely spiritual religion.
Another reason that relics are important is related to this: we are in the presence of something which we know will be - albeit in a transformed state - in Heaven. For whenever we say the Apostle's Creed, we proclaim that we believe in the resurrection of the body. So St John Bosco's hand, currently in Southwark Cathedral, is guaranteed to be resurrected at the end of time and to take its place with Our Lord and Our Lady - in their human bodies - in Heaven. That is truly awesome.
And thinking of the Creed made me reflect also on the Communion of Saints. There is a mystical connection between us on earth, (the Church militant) and the saints in Heaven, (the Church triumphant) as well as the Church suffering (the Holy Souls in purgatory). Relics are a tangible point of connection reflecting that spiritual reality. In a way, they are a type of the Blessed Sacrament itself: it is characteristic of our incarnational religion that matter becomes the means by which the supernatural is communicated to us.
Likewise, the intercession of the saints, which relics prompt us to seek and (I would dare wager) also mystically enable, is typical of Catholicism. Or rather, of Catholicism's God. For whilst many protestants reject the idea of any intermediary between God and each individual, a brief reflection on how God chooses to operate demonstrates that He rather likes the idea. He sent Gabriel to Mary; He sent John the Baptist to prepare the way for Christ; Our Lord Himself sent His apostles out to preach the Kingdom; and very few of us have received the Faith in the way St Paul did - for most it is passed on through (imperfect) human beings.
So let us resist all attempt to characterise our attitude to relics as something medieval or irrational. It is in the nature of our Faith that we should reverence them as immediate and direct links with Heaven.
St Therese - pray for us,
St John Bosco - pray for us.
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