Fragments of the CrossJan 31st, 2012 | By Jeremy Tate | Category: Blog Posts
At the end of November, for the first Sunday of Advent, our family made a short pilgrimage to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C. Five or six minutes into Mass my 13 month old boy decided he could have no more of it and committed himself to a first class melt down. In consideration of the hundreds of worshipers there, who were beginning to look our direction to see whether or not we were torturing our child, I decided it would be best to remove my boy from the worship space. We exited in dramatic fashion of course, with his flailing legs coming close to bloodying any worshipers in his way.
Any chance of coming back before the Eucharist had vanished so I prepared for an hour of exploration in the great basilica with my little boy. At one point we made our way to the reliquary, where, for the first time, I saw a fragment of the cross upon which Christ had been crucified. My first reaction was not wonder and awe, but skepticism. The relic encased was no bigger than the point of a pen. How could anybody know if it came from the cross of Christ? As I thought through it, my rationalistic mind did battle with another part of me that was utterly fascinated with the small speck of wood. Part of me became amazed while another part refused to rejoice over what had to be impossible. Nonetheless, I couldn’t wait to show what I had found to my wife and daughter after Mass.
My wife, like me, first expressed some skepticism. We both hid this skepticism from our daughters. My five year old, however, expressed pure belief and complete amazement. She starred into the glass with a look of wonder and completely forgot everything around her. She tried to find words to communicate what she was feeling; “Daddy, it’s like really really real.” This little fragment of wood had catapulted her faith from fairy tale to concrete reality. She talked about the relic the whole way home. She told grandma and grandpa what she had seen. The cross was real, Christ was real. For her, the wonderful story of Christ’s passion had just entered a new dimension.
I thought about my daughter’s experience in December when I read Leonardo De Chirico’s Reformation 21 article, “The Vatican Files VII.” In this article De Chirico discusses the year of St. Paul, celebrated from June 28th 2008 to June 29th 2009 in the Catholic Church. One of De Chirico’s greatest points of contention is that on the one hand the Catholic Church claims to be Pauline, while on the other hand she venerates relics. I found it interesting that he would make this objection considering that some of the first relics in the Church were Pauline. In Acts 19:11-12, St. Luke writes:
God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.
The problem with dismissing relics is that it’s only possible to do so when speaking of relics in general. Once any particular relic is brought up, say wood from Christ’s cross, or parts of St. Paul’s handkerchief, dismissal seems sacrilegious while belief seems sanctifying. This is because every relic is connected to Christ, the divine made physical. Every relic lifts the fog of unbelief because every relic offers its own concrete testimony to Christ’s redemptive work in this world. I would like to ask Leonardo De Chirico whether or not he approves of this practice recorded in Scripture concerning Paul’s handkerchiefs. If fragments of those handkerchiefs turned up in his congregation would he want them to be taken to the sick? It would be hard to condemn the practice recorded in Acts without doing violence to Scripture or adopting a dispensational idea about the role of relics in the life of the Church.
It might be easy to dismiss relics altogether on the simple grounds that fraudulent relics have been proven to exist. This sort of thinking, however, would never be applied elsewhere in the Christian life. Such an idea is analogous to arguing that orthodox doctrine should be dismissed simply because heresies have been proven to exist as well. Such an idea is absurd. The same Church that Christ equipped to distinguish truth from error can also distinguish a true relic from a fake. All Christians should honor true relics and all believers should mimic the faith of children. As my daughter taught me, the Church is trustworthy, and she will lead us into a deeper knowledge and joy of the resurrected Christ.