Relics and gestures of faith

The religiosity of the Filipino is legendary, and this was repeatedly affirmed during the recent visit to the country of Pope Francis. There are accounts of food caterers putting aside as keepsakes the plates, cups and glasses, knives, forks and spoons, and table napkins that he used when he took his meals. That is quite understandable. But, to treat as holy the bits of food left over on his plate or the water that remained in the glass from which he drank, as has been reported, stretches the meaning of the sacred. It suggests a rather premodern conception of one’s faith.

There is a big difference between such objects and, for example, the bloodstained undershirt that John Paul II was wearing after he was shot in the stomach by a would-be assassin at St. Peter’s Square. That piece of garment, bearing the initials “JP” sewn in red, is one of the many relics that have surfaced since his beatification and subsequent canonization. The shirt was picked up from the floor by the head nurse of the operating room of Gemelli Polyclinic in Rome where JPII was rushed after the May 13, 1981, shooting incident. She wrapped it in a towel and brought it home for safekeeping, later donating it to the Daughters of Charity in Rome. Today, it stands as a mute testament to the late pope’s “courage in the face of death and suffering.”

An object, I understand, can become a relic for simply coming into contact with a blessed person’s body. But, there are distinctions. A report of The Associated Press (AP, 04/24/2014) says: “Relics are categorized by the Vatican as ‘first-class’ (those that are part of the saint’s body, such as bones or blood), ‘second-class’ (items owned or used by a saint), and ‘third-class’ (mostly things that were touched by the saint).”

One expects that a saint like John Paul II, who lived in contemporary times and traveled a lot, would leave many traces of his presence everywhere he went. And so it is not surprising that JPII relics are turning up everywhere following his canonization. At the same time, numerous requests are being made, particularly from his native Poland, for relics of the late pope. Relics are not supposed to be traded, but one can imagine how often this is circumvented.

Msgr. Piero Marini, who served as St. John Paul II’s personal assistant for many years, told AP that true relics “are those of the body. The body is the place where the Holy Spirit produced its effect, where it worked.” This set of meanings is decidedly an integral part of religious communication, and therefore makes no sense outside the religious sphere. But, even within the religious system, where matters pertaining to the “transcendent” are distinguished from the “immanent,” one cannot operate with an open-ended understanding of the sacred.

It is part of the mystery of religion that some objects are plucked out of the world of the profane and become sacralized. Obviously, not everything a saint has touched can be regarded as holy. One canít imagine the airline seats on which John Paul II sat during his numerous travels abroad being decommissioned and preserved as relics. Even the bones of a holy person are nothing but bones until they become the reference point of specific rituals and constraints. One is not supposed to be curious about the objects themselves, which only trivializes them, but to focus rather on what they signify.

During his Philippine visit, Pope Francis was deeply impressed by the effusive way he was received everywhere by the Filipino faithful. He reciprocated by blessing and touching those who came near him, reaching out with outstretched arms to those who could only catch a distant and fleeting glimpse of him as he passed. He warmly hugged every child who approached him, never showing any hesitation or haste in what he was doing. His gestures were never perfunctory or ritualistic. He was the perfect answer to the Filipino faithful’s thirst for grace.

But, beyond these public encounters with the crowd, it was the face-to-face meetings with those he sought to console that seemed to move him most profoundly. One of these was his brief meeting with the father of Kristel Mae Padasas, a young Catholic volunteer who died after a scaffolding that supported the sound system collapsed on her during the papal Mass at the Tacloban airport. The young woman was the only child of her parents. According to Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle who accompanied the Pope at this private meeting, Francis fell silent, unable to find the right words to comfort the grieving parent. He was stunned when Kristel’s father spoke and assured him he had accepted his daughter’s death, and that her death was not meaningless. “What faith! What faith!” Francis kept saying afterwards.

This is the purpose of all religions. Beyond the rituals and the relics, what religion furnishes most essentially is a guarantee of the determinability of all meaning against the accompanying experience of senseless suffering and death. This allows those who believe to accept the most terrifying events and experiences in their lives and to open themselves to the surprises of the divine.

“There’s a word that’s difficult for us to understand because it has been vulgarized too much, too badly used, too badly understood,” the Pope said during the press conference aboard the plane that took him back to Rome. “But it’s a word that has substance: resignation. A people who knows how to suffer, and is capable of rising up.” He recalled what Kristel’s father had told him. “He said she died in service; he was seeking words to confirm himself, to accept it. A people that knows how to suffer–that’s what I saw, and how I interpreted the gestures.”

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