Relics in Catholicism

Five hundred-year-old arm of St. Francis visited Victoria earlier this year

A German cathedral in Trier, which is said to house the holy robe of Jesus Christ. Photo by Dennis Jarvis via Flickr

On Jan. 27, St. Francis Xavier’s arm arrived in Victoria at St. Andrew’s Catholic Church. The relic had travelled across the country, tying into Canada’s celebrations of 150 years of confederation.

The arm is kept inside what looked like a gold spoon placed in a glass case. It is crusty and brown, the pinkie curled downward slightly, but it was in remarkably good shape given that no chemicals had been used to preserve it for 500 years. According to Father John O’Brian, one of the people in charge of the relic, St. Francis Xavier’s body managed to avoid rot for the first 150 years after his death. The arm was smaller than I expected, but in comparison to other relics that have survived up to this point — mostly tiny bone fragments — this was massive: both physically and spiritually.

For some context, St. Francis Xavier was one of the seven founders of the Jesuit Order, an offshoot of Catholicism that can claim the current Pope as one of its followers. St. Francis Xavier was a missionary who travelled the world, specifically in South Asia and Japan, where he was one of the first people to bring Christianity to those places. Whether or not this was a good thing is no doubt up for debate.

It’s said that he blessed around 100 000 people, specifically with his right (and now-detached) arm. He died when he was 46 years old, on an island just off the coast of China. In a short speech by Angele Regnier, another person in charge of the relic’s journey across Canada, she told us that his followers planned to go to China for a mission and placed his body in quicklime with the hope that only his bones would remain. They did this so they wouldn’t have to sail across the ocean with a rotting body and to give St. Francis a proper burial once they got home.

However, when the quicklime process was done, St. Francis Xavier still had his flesh and it was still pink and fresh. The technical term is ‘incorruptible’— a body that doesn’t decay. The Catholic Church considers this an indicator for canonizing a Saint and for God to bring attention to a particular person. St. Francis Xavier was eventually canonized as the Patron Saint of Missionaries.

Canonized saints aren’t worshipped as deities, rather viewed as family members that have gone to Heaven. The Saint is prayed through —  acting as a conduit to God. The Catholic Church believes that when someone prays at a certain place or through a person, spiritual benefits occur. Some Christians say they feel closer to God in a special place, like praying in a Church verses praying at home. Saints are considered by the Catholic Church as having lived a life of extraordinary holiness and they want to pray to them in a special way. It’s this sense of seeking out something tangible. Father John described Catholicism as a very physical religion. I’d never heard Catholicism described that way before. But it makes sense, looking back on the act of communion, or Jesus healing people by touching them directly. I guess people just naturally look for something to hang onto, especially when it comes to spirituality, which does a require trusting the intangible.

This is why it’s a big deal that St. Francis Xavier’s arm is travelling the country, other than just saving people a trip to Europe. For many Catholics, it’s a way to get closer to God.

In Catholicism, relics and Saints are a way to gain a closer relationship to God. For Catholics and Jesuits, Heaven and God isn’t sealed entirely off from earth but proactive in helping people like through the Saints. People actually communicate with Saints more often than you might think. According to Father John, it turns out that in every Catholic Church, there’s something called a ‘Relic Stone’ in the altar. Inside the stone there is a small relic (usually a bone fragment) of the Saint that the Church is named after. All you have to do is ask the priest, and apparently they’ll show you.

This is why it’s a big deal that St. Francis Xavier’s arm is travelling the country, other than just saving people a trip to Europe. For many Catholics, it’s a way to get closer to God.

Relics still matter a lot to people in the modern day. I’m not religious myself, but there is a sense of sacredness when I saw the relic face to face. You could feel the history behind it. It was fascinating to learn more about Christianity considering it is so prevalent in the world, especially in regards to how a 500-year-old arm can strengthen someone’s faith. When I went to the service on the 27th, the Church was nearly packed with people who came to see the relic.

People could only pray in front of the relic for ten seconds so everybody could be given a chance. Everyone was given a small pamphlet where they could write down their prayers and a small portrait of St. Francis Xavier. We were told to press them against the glass of the case when it was our turn, or just have a small moment of quiet meditation. Everyone did it. They all seemed lost in thought as they prayed, though I couldn’t tell what they were thinking when they walked away. I hoped they got something out of the experience. As for me, I ended up learning a lot more about Catholicism than I was originally expecting. Despite Christianity as a whole being /everywhere/ in our culture, the fine details about the beliefs ended up getting lost somehow. I always like learning about stuff like this—stuff that more accurately explains why people believe the things that they believe and how much they matter to people. Maybe it’s just me.


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