When I had my first of many media interviews, I tried to explain why Catholics were coming out to see a mummified arm. I told reporters that it is very Catholic to have a spiritual experience through tangible things, that our whole sacramental system is premised on an incarnational outlook. Since we believe “the Word became flesh,” it is not much of a stretch to believe that the material and the flesh can lead us back to the Word. I said that Catholics have deep instincts and long memories and that the saints evoke ancestral graces.
I was asked to give talks in the cities we visited, unpacking Xavier’s life and explaining the theological roots of our tradition of venerating relics. I learned it was a deeply scriptural practice, going back to the Old Testament when a dead man was mysteriously restored to life when he was laid on the bones of Elijah. The Jewish instinct for recognizing God at work in the material world is retained in the Gospels, as when Jesus spits onto his thumbs and rubs them on a blind man’s eyes, restoring his sight. It occurs when the woman with the hemorrhage knows she needs only to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment to be healed. The early church, too, would care for the bones of the beloved departed and observed special graces connected to their presence.
Healing is needed today in Canada between the indigenous and non-indigenous peoples. One day on the tour, I was hearing the confession of a woman who asked to pray the act of contrition in the Cree language. Moved by her request, I was reminded of St. Jean de Brébeuf and the other Jesuit missionaries of North America, who noted the great reverence the native people had for the bones of their dead. Most non-Western cultures, unafflicted by the Cartesian split between spirit and body (of which we are all heirs), seem to have a healthy instinct for the importance of the incarnational. Perhaps Xavier was working to reconnect us today, to God, to creation and to each other.
While we are a little light on saintly ossuaries in North America, Europe is covered with shrines and tombs that testify to the long-enduring Christian belief in the intercession of saints through the veneration of their earthly remains. Yet even in Canada, the bones of Brébeuf himself are visited by hundreds of thousands every year in Midland, Ontario. The instinct may be buried, but the pull of the sacred relics endures.
...that the saints will always be with us, spending their time in heaven quite active on earth. We activate their power by saying their names and spending time with them. It is part of the mystery of belonging to the great family of believers spanning earth and heaven, all laboring together for our collective good."