Recently, a colleague invited me to visit the remains of a priest-saint, a prospect that – for a Catholic – seems normal enough. Certainly, the solemn tradition of venerating saints’ relics has deep and ancient roots. Her invitation landed in my inbox, however, in the joking form of a person diligently explaining to the world that Catholics weren’t at all odd, yet anxiously checking to see if certain relics were touring within a drivable distance.
Irony noted. Point taken.
She knew that, several years ago, I’d applied for a research grant to study why people viewed the “Incorruptibles” in Rome. Did they still visit these shrines out of pious devotion or was it now macabre curiosity? The project required far greater explanation than anticipated simply because the committee had no idea such things “still existed.”
Venerating the remains of saints is seen by many as a bizarre throwback, impossible to justify to modern people. For while the tradition spans millennia, times and beliefs have shifted. In a world where science, we’re told, has explained everything, bodies hold neither mystery nor importance. They are modified and commodified, changeable and interchangeable, something to be transcended and replaced.
Yet bodies do matter, in life and in death. The early Church recognized this immediately. What you do affects the material world; it also transforms the body for good or ill. Letting the life and power of God flow through a person charges the very matter out of which he or she is made with holiness.
The Church treasured the remains of the saints because she knew this to be true. Scripture points out that cloths touched to the living skin of Paul drove out demons and disease (Acts 19:12) and how people believed the mere shadow of Peter could heal (Acts 5:15). It testifies that even the lifeless bones of Elisha revived a dead man buried alongside him. (2 Kings 13:21)
There is something else here, though: bodies are communally important. This has little to do with miracles and much to do with maintaining identity and relationship. When the faithful retrieved the bones of Polycarp, “more precious than jewels,” and deposited them in a fitting place it was with a mind to gathering together annually to celebrate his martyrdom and prepare themselves to run the same race. Polycarp was living and effective even in death.
And there was not much left of Ignatius of Antioch after the beasts tore at him, but the Church collected the larger remains, rejoicing to convey back to Antioch, a veritable treasure given by the grace of God. He returned to the bosom of his people, a still living member of his community.
Scripture witnesses that the dying Joseph made the sons of Israel swear that when they left Egypt that would gather up his bones and take him with them. (Gen 50:25) They did, burying him with his fathers, yes, but also in their midst.
The body is indeed important, and what we do with it – in life and death – matters. Despite the popular assumption these days that certain religions are all Peoples of the Book, this is not true. We are not founded on a book; we have a book. Rather, we are built on a Body. Members of it. Saved by it. Vivified in it. It is hardly astonishing then that the Church preserves her saint’s remains and builds altars upon their bones, for they remain a living part of the Body of Christ.
This belief can be lost, however, and with it the identity and communion we maintain as a Body. People rarely go on pilgrimage anymore. Parishes no longer know which relics (if any) they possess. Even belief in the Real Presence of the Eucharist is in decline. These are not completely unconnected. Bodies no longer matter.
A small, recent example: My father maintained a deep devotion to Père Jacques Marquette, the great French missionary of the 17thcentury. It was personal to him. Before he died he desired to visit Marquette’s grave in Michigan but he became too ill, and it proved impossible.
Some correspondence later fell into my hands. They were letters, brown and brittle, from Fr. Edward Jacker, written in 1886 and told the story of finding Marquette’s remains at Point Saint-Ignace some years earlier.
In 1675 Marquette died and was buried there. In 1677, the Kiskakon Indians were hunting nearby and wished to visit their spiritual father. Like the Israelites, they gathered his bones and solemnly took him home to be buried beneath the Saint-Ignace chapel. His body mattered. It was important to them as a community. Fr. Jacker selected the larger fragments to give to the newly founded Marquette College and reburied the rest at Saint-Ignace.
Fascinated, I used to ask Marquette Jesuits where his remains were kept. Surely in a chapel? In their private community? Nobody knew. Most said his grave was in Michigan. A few wondered what difference it made; they were just bones. Flummoxed, I made a pilgrimage to the archives, looking for a paper trail to follow. The woman softly told me there was no need. His remains were stored in the archives behind her. The Jesuit community requested they not be viewed.
The same community who didn’t know they were there? Let me express, not a criticism, but a prayer. May we remember our holy relics. Jacques Marquette remains living and effective: a patron to be implored, a priest-saint to intercede for his people. We should honor his body.
As we are about to enter the season of Lent, may we remember the reasons we cherish and keep their remains among us. At stake is not just losing track of their bodies but forgetting the source of our true identity as Christ’s Body.
Dieu n’a pas voulu permettre qu’un deposit si pretieux, demeurast au milieu des bois sans honneur et dans l’oubly. (« God did not wish to allow so precious a deposit to remain in the middle of the woods, without honor and forgotten. ») [Vol. 59 Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents]
*Image: Père Marquette and the Indians by Wilhelm Lamprecht, c. 1890 [Raynor Memorial Library, Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI]