I wrote in this space on Tuesday that the New York Times' coverage of the Archbishop Sheen body battle was missing information on why relics are important to Catholics. By contrast, a recent article by Anne-Gerard Flynn at MassLive.com, although light on theology, captures the sense of the faithful who see in relics a living connection to saints.
Flynn seeks to capture the atmosphere of devotion among those venerating a relic of St. Anthony of Padua on loan to a local parish. She begins with an adept verbal snapshot of one woman paying her respects to the 13th-century Franciscan friar:
Springfield resident Brenda Madison was among the first area residents to venerate the relic of St. Anthony of Padua, and the physical experience of putting her lips to the glass reliquary containing the bone fragment of the saint, born in Portugual in 1195, left her in an emotional state.
"I teared up. I was just so happy. All of these years I have prayed to Anthony, and now I got that close to a part of the saint," said Madison, who attended a brief prayer service, Sept. 6, marking the reception of the relic into the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, at St. Michael's Cathedral.
Flynn's line about how "the physical experience of putting her lips to the glass reliquary ... left [Madison] in an emotional state" is subtle and powerful. Instead of asking an expert in Catholic theology about what it means to venerate a saint, she is trying to capture in words what such veneration means to the believer: physical contact with a person who, although dead to this present world, is alive in heaven.
Although there are some brief comments from the diocesan bishop, Flynn's main theological expert is Madison, perhaps because she gave better quotes:
The Most Rev. Mitchell T. Rozanski, diocesan bishop, presided at the service, saying the relic "reminds us of our ties with each other, but also our ties with the saints."
"The saints still look out for us who are on our earthly journey," Rozanski told the several dozen people in attendance.
The words could have been directly spoken to Madison, who grew up in the Central American country of Belize, where her family have been Catholics for generation. A mother of five, she continues the tradition of praying to saints with her own children.
"It's more than one saint. As a Catholic you need all the saints," Madison said. But, she added, Anthony was the saint that her mother made a novena, or prayer to, every Tuesday.
"I have been praying to St. Anthony for 35 years, and, through his intercession, all my intentions for my family and children have been answered," Madison said.
"As a Catholic you need all the saints." I don't think Thomas Aquinas could have said it better.
One quibble: It would be nice to have some explanation of why Catholics say they "pray to" saints, so that it is clear that, while saints are considered heavenly intercessors, they are not themselves objects of worship. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says their prayers "fix the whole Church more firmly in holiness" through "an exchange of spiritual goods." But even on that account, Flynn compensates somewhat by quoting Madison on where her devotion to St. Anthony ultimately leads her:
Madison said she prays to Anthony "for strength."
"I am a caregiver, and I ask him to help me to have compassion and empathy and to be present to the goodness and greatness of God."
That is the purpose of Catholic devotion to saints in a nutshell: to bring the believer closer to the Lord. GetReligion kudos to Anne-Gerard Flynn.