This past January, thanks to the collaboration of Catholic Christian Outreach (CCO) and the Jesuits, the forearm of St. Francis Xavier came to my city, as part of a tour across Canada. As Angèle Regnier, the co-founder of CCO, said, “it’s the arm that he would have used to baptize and heal and, you know, done amazing things with.”
I managed to see the relic twice. The first time, I was able to get a good look at the forearm and take in all of its features. The second time, I went with some friends to the cathedral, joining thousands of other people who wanted to venerate the relic for just a few seconds. As good as it was to be able to examine the relic in detail and fix it in my mind, it was perhaps more moving to venerate along with the larger Church, and to be part of a body united across not only barriers of geography like plains and oceans, but also barriers of time and death. Fr. Raymond de Souza notes that “We cannot know for sure of course, but this arm that we venerate now in Canada may have baptized my ancestors, may have given them Holy Communion, may have made the Sign of the Cross over their graves.” To see this relic is to realize that, as a Catholics, we are heirs to an immense tradition of relationships. We share the same faith as those ancestors, and did not simply come to it through our own abstract speculation and vague “spirituality,” but because at some point, some missionary came to those ancestors and entered into some sort of concrete relationship with them that made the faith real in their lives, which the ancestors then passed down in the same way; it’s probably impossible to know, but my family might thank St. Patrick for that gift.
T. S. Eliot says in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” that ‘Someone said: “The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are that which we know.” As Regnier points out, “Being physically close to a relic makes the stories of the Bible and saints vividly real; it also creates a deep sense of intimacy.” When relics surround us, we live and breathe in a culture that remembers how the saints loved them, and that is confident in love that crosses the valley of the shadow of death. It passes on the traditions of the Apostles not as an abstract philosophy learned in dusty books, but as relationships and life lived as a united body. We can know the same faith as the saints, but we can know it, in some respects, better than they did, for we can see their way of living out the Christian life.
The place in which I live, love it as I do, is not one that displays those traditions quite so visibly, which isn’t to say that they’re absent. But it’s not the case, like in Rome, that I am surrounded by signs of the faith of my ancestors. (Heck, it’s barely surrounded by signs of any art at all; last time I went to the art gallery in my hometown, the displays consisted of rough courtroom sketches, a typewriter, sticky notes on the wall, sketches of the proposed addition to the gallery, and beadwork images of various viruses. Inspiring and edifying. It’s reminiscent of Lady Bird: “I want to go where culture is like New York, or Connecticut or New Hampshire.”) Walking down the street, I don’t trip over statues of saints or fall down a hole into the catacombs; if I take a wrong turn I don’t find myself at the front door of yet another church; I can only hear the church bells ringing faintly if the wind’s right. Instead, the colours of the local football team are all around, images of the star players posted everywhere, there are bus ads with the faces of local radio hosts, and statues of former Lieutenant Governors. Woe is me, who wants to live among the ancient architecture of Catholic thought and life.
(Actually, there is a statue of some nuns in the park of my hometown, so it’s not entirely bereft of these signs.)
And I’m also not surrounded by the dead (though snow is general all over Canada). There may be relics in the altars of the local churches, but they’re pretty small, and I don’t get see them during Mass; they certainly don’t tend to attract attention. Cemeteries are tucked away far from the churches in which we are baptized, raised, and married, so the sense of the long-enduring body of the parish is completely absent. Not only is the idea of death as oblivion tucked away, so too is the idea of living among the dead who are still in communion with us. But when the relic of St. Francis Xavier arrived, that communion became visible in a new way. Obviously it’s visible on Sundays at Mass, in the partaking of the Eucharist with the rest of the Church, to become one with Christ, but this visit displayed not just the communion of the Church that not only worships and becomes one with Christ together but the communion of the Church that guards and passes on her traditions and is just on the other side of the veil from those who passed on those traditions before.
St. Francis Xavier answered a call to give everything up and to go to the far side of the world. I live in what would have been for him another far side of the world, and though there are certainly people passing on their faith, and a tradition of love in this place, the responsibility of that inheritance does not so thickly imbue the air as it would at the Church of the Gesù in Rome, where the relic is normally kept. And so instead of lamenting my local art gallery, I should answer the call I receive: not necessarily a call to go to the far side of the world, but to establish that tradition where there is none, to (hopefully) create new relics, either of my own body or of my children’s bodies or their children’s. To be mildly irreverent, looking at the relic prompted me to think of what St. Teresa of Avila said: Christ has no hands on Earth but your hands. Fr. De Souza notes that “It’s a rare honour — and responsibility — for Canada’s young Catholics to host such a continental tour.” But who better to do so, if the hope is that “many people will have the chance to encounter Jesus and be inspired to work together for the renewal of the world,” thereby passing on the tradition and making new relics, with their own hands, which are Christ’s.