Thursday, 23 August 2012

Them bones: relics and the rejection of the body

Cath News highlighted a story yesterday, from the Canberra Times, on the upcoming tour of a relic of St Frances Xavier in the form of his severed arm.

Most of the comments express horror at the prospect of seeing such a relic, viewing it as grotesque, superstitious, and urging that children be shielded from seeing such a thing.

This is not, I think, a totally outrageous first reaction at least: after all, those relics really are gory! 

Yet they serve the same function, I think, as other rather gory aspects of our practice, such as use of the Cross in our worship.  So it has to be asked, how has it come about that Catholics can find such an important part of their tradition so alien?

Body and soul

The traditional teaching, of course is that man is body and soul: and a holy person transforms their body into a true temple of the Lord, with (visible, such as stigmatas and the like and/or invisible) physical effects on their body which persist after their death.

This is one of the reasons the Church strongly prefers burial over cremation.

The most obvious examples of this physical manifestation of holiness are of course recorded in the Gospels: the women who simply touched the hem of Christ's clothing and was instantly healed for example.

For this reason the cult of saints based around their relics was no medieval invention: rather the veneration of the bones of the martyrs can be traced to those early catacombs in Rome and elsewhere.

But it is a cult that certainly grew over time, as the evidence of miracles attributable to relics made the tombs of the saints into pilgrimage sites and more.

Rejecting the role of the body

Somehow or other though, modern catholicism seems to have lost sight of this proper anthropology, of the idea that training the body can aid in the growth of virtue; and that in reverse, our holiness (or lack thereof) can affect our bodies.

Instead of a process of gradual growth in sanctity by dint of the interaction between grace and our acceptance and co-operation with it, a process of 'deification' to use the Eastern terminology, many Catholics seem to have swallowed the fundamentalist born-again notion of instant sainthood by virtue of 'accepting Christ as their saviour'. 

The born again notion is an attractive one, of course, particularly in the watered down form many Catholics appear to have imbibed - because all that seems to be required is a statement of belief without the need for any of that pesky follow up like actually attending Mass for example, or undertaking penance for our past sins.

Indeed, as I've pointed out in a few posts earlier this week, even as a flood of 'how I survived Ramadan' stories as a conversion tool hit the mainstream newspapers around the world, Catholics continue to baulk at even baby steps down this track such as even a three hour Eucharistic fast!


The loss of this sense of the sanctity of our bodies, of the body as the Temple of Christ, and of the need for physical as well as mental training for sanctity, has had major consequences.

It has facilitated the infiltration of those 1960s notions of sexual liberation in the Church, including the priesthood for example.

It has encouraged sacrilegious reception of the Eucharist on a regular basis by many.

What relics should mean for us

Now I have to admit, I do personally find some of these kinds of relics rather gory, and I think that is a perfectly reasonable first reaction. 

For just as the Cross is a scandal, just as those wounds on Christ's hands and feet that St Thomas had to see to believe, so too the relics of the saints remind us that our faith is not entirely a warm fuzzy, fluffy, happy thing, but one grounded in the hard realities of the real world, bound up in the struggles of life and death.

The very goriness of relics such as this remind us that this life is not the end: those dry bones, after all, will once again be revived on the last day, when the bodies and souls of the faithful are reunited.

Accordingly, we need to reflect on just why the Church promotes the cult of the saints and what that should mean for our own efforts to make our bodies a worth and true Temple for Christ.

There is a developing website for the tour which will provide dates and more shortly. 


Felix said...

Well, I want to venerate St Francis' relics.

But I think it's imprudent to expose them to school kids unless they're properly catechised.

Otherwise most of them will dismiss it as ghoulish and mediaeval.

It's, like, casting pearls before pigs.

And proper catechesis in a "Catholic school"? It's, like, pigs may fly.

Maureen said...

It's very disturbing to me, to realise that St Francis'remains are not intact; that "most"of his body is in India.
Isn't this as wrong as sharing the ashes of a cremated person around the various survivors?
I'm sorry, I think it's very "off", to be taking his arm on a tour of Australia - "off", and off-putting.

Terry said...

In my view, a Catholic who is opposed to venerating the relics of saints, is as strange as a Catholic who is opposed to saying the Rosary. In the case of St Francis Xavier, I think it will all be quite (h)armless.

Maureen said...

Terry - I am not "opposed" to venerating the relics of saints; what I find confronting is the fact that this particular saint's body, after having been buried, was exhumed for the purpose of retrieving the arm.
People should be left to rest in peace and with dignity, and certainly intact after burial, even if they are subsequently canonised.
I know that the Catholic church disapproves most strongly of the modern practice of giving family members a portion of cremated ashes so that they "can say goodbye in their own way".
To me,the arm of St Francis being taken on a tour falls into this category, and I do find it distasteful.
But it doesn't make me a "strange" Catholic, since the veneration of particular Saints is not compulsory.

Robert said...

While sharing Maureen's distaste for the apparent failure to leave St Francis Xavier's body intact, I can't help thinking that a more severe problem than lack of reverence for a saint's relics is the mindless denunciation of "the culture of death" parroted by young people of allegedly Catholic formation.

These youngsters, of course, imagine in their catechetic ineptitude that (a) theology didn't even exist before "John Paul the Great", (b) any stray remark from that source has the authority of the infallible magisterium, even or rather especially when it contradicts another stray remark from that source.

As I do not have children myself the question of school formation does not directly arise in my case, but if I did have children, I would ask in complete seriousness (perhaps Felix or another reader of this website can enlighten me): other than the SSPX-affiliated schools in New South Wales, Victoria, and Queensland, is there any Australian school calling itself Catholic where the religious teaching amounts to more than a sick pagan-heretical joke?

This is not at all a rhetorical question, nor do I wish to get into pro- or anti-SSPX wrangles; I have "no dog in that fight", as Americans would say. I simply would like to know. Certainly from what I've seen of "Catholic" schools within the Melbourne "Catholic" Archdiocese, I'd happily have them all closed down tomorrow if I could.

Kate Edwards said...

Maureen - In fact the Church has always encouraged a different treatment of saints.

For one thing, every altar is required to contain a relic, usually a sliver of bone. Canon law actually specifies that 'the ancient tradition of placing relics of martyrs or of other saints beneath a fixed altar is to be retained...(CL1237).

Of course, your reaction probably explains why monstrosities such as the clear perspex number continues to be used at my local parish!

Relics can be a conduit of grace that can bring healing and other miracles by invoking the saint concerned and reminding us that our faith has a real physical dimension in this world, such that the holiness of heaven breaches times and space to reach out to us, manifested in the sacred space of churches, in relics and other sanctified things.

Kate Edwards said...

PS You are right though that we don't have to venerate any particular saint, or agree with decisions like lopping the arm of a saint and taking it on tour!

If it was my body I wouldn't be too thrilled, but I guess if you are a a saint you view it as just another way of serving the church...

And folks, please keep to the issues rather the person articulating them, and stick to the topic.

Good topic to think through though!

Kate Edwards said...

Mindless denunciation of the culture of death? What on earth are you talking about Robert?

While I'm no great fan of JPII., the 'culture of death' is one thing it seems to me that he actually did get right!

Robert said...

I am sorry if my earlier post mentioning Pope John Paul II and the "culture of death" failed to make my meaning clear, so perhaps I had better try again. My intended meaning was, and is, as follows:

In earlier centuries Catholics never imagine that Catholicism made them morally obliged to denounce capital punishment. (St Peter Claver, to name but one celebrated case, had the job of comforting murderers on death row: not the job of being an abolitionist.) But since John Paul II's reign and in particular since 2000, it has become a widespread Catholic assumption that the death penalty is as inherently evil as abortion.

Of course in practice the Church's lawmakers do not believe this, since if they did, they would (a) need to rewrite CCC 2227, (b) openly censure (and perhaps declare excommunicate) Judge Scalia in the USA and other prominent traditional Catholic pro-death-penalty thinkers. But since the "JP2 We Love You" brigade is far better at bandying around slogans than at appreciating the difference between taking guilty life (e.g. executing a mass murderer) and taking innocent life (e.g. abortion), it is hardly surprising that the catchphrase "the culture of death" is as thoughtlessly and widely applied to the former as it is legitimately applied to the latter.

Peter said...

Maureen, there is a big difference between dividing the relics of a saint which are kept always in dedicated holy places to be venerated, and sharing the ashes of a cremated person around the various survivors, to be used in whatever profane way each person wishes, from throwing them onto a sports field to incorporating them into an artwork to whatever.

The Church never allows a dead person's body to be disturbed after burial except for a very good reason. Removal of parts of the body is done only after the beatification of the person. And in this case, after the body part was found to be miraculously incorrupt - surely a sign from God that He WANTS us to venerate the relics.