Catholic saints are best known as nearly life-size statues gazing down from church alcoves, mysterious figures from long ago. But an unusual traveling exhibit of more than 150 saints’ relics shows that they still capture hearts in the 21st century.
The exhibit, called Treasures of the Church, is one of the larger collections to visit Minnesota. While the authenticity of many such relics has been questioned, the faithful lining up at churches over the past two weeks to view them are convinced they have the power to change lives, even create miracles.
“I consider them my friends in heaven,” said Holly Poulsen, a mother of two, touching her rosary and crucifix to one of the relics displayed at St. John the Baptist Church in Excelsior last week. “It’s like a friend is praying for you, but it’s more powerful because they are in heaven and closer to God.”
While saints continue to be popular with many Catholics, venerating relics is less common today than centuries ago, in part because of concerns over authenticity and in part because of confusion over what it means to pray to a relic, religious leaders said.
The Rev. Alex Carlson, of St. John’s, said he hoped to clear up misconceptions by inviting the exhibition to his church.
“I thought it would be a good idea to educate parishioners and others,” said Carlson. “I think there is confusion about relics … but the saints are popular because they give us inspiration for our lives.”
The collection is the work of the Rev. Carlos Martins, of the Companions of the Cross religious order, who travels with this exhibit. Its final Minnesota showing is Wednesday at the Church of All Saints-St. Mary’s in Holdingford.
Martins sees the relics as a tool for evangelization. They purportedly contain slivers of bone or fragments from everyone from St. Patrick to St. John the Baptist to St. Helen — plus all 12 apostles.
Last week, several hundred people filled the pews at St. John’s while Martins instructed them on the ABCs of the relic world. There are three classes of relics, he said. In the first class are remains of a saint’s body. The second class is an item the saint possessed. A third-class relic has touched a first- or second-class one.
Martins shared stories of people cured from disease after praying to saints whose tiny relics are now stored in containers called reliquaries in churches and religious sites around the world.
After an hourlong presentation, Martins announced that people could view the relics.
“There will be one saint that will reach out to you,” he told the crowd. “Your job is to find your saint.”
And that’s what people did. In a room behind the altar 15 tables held relics and brief descriptions of the saints. Parishioners walked quietly around the tables clutching crucifixes, rosaries and Bibles, touching them to the relics and often mouthing silent prayers.
Julio Calvillo stood over a relic identified as St. John the Baptist, holding his rosary, and a medal for his grandchild.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Calvillo. “Observing everyone around here, seeing their devotion, is awe-inspiring.”
Lyle Swanson, a retiree from Shorewood, watched the activity. A former Lutheran, he admitted it took him time to get accustomed to venerating relics. “I thought preserving body parts was kind of gruesome.”
Now, however, Swanson is not just a convert. He has three relics at home, he said.
“Saints are somebody to model your life after,” he said.
Canon law prohibits relics from being bought and sold. However, relics — real or fake — are offered for sale today on eBay and other websites — much to the consternation of Catholic officials.
Difficult to prove
Besides the folks at the relic tables, a long line filled the center aisle of St. John’s. Displayed there, allegedly, was the mother lode. A fragment of the “true cross,” the cross Jesus was crucified on. A piece of thorn from the crown of thorns. A fragment from the Virgin Mary’s veil, and relics from all 12 apostles.
Catholic scholars say this is where relics get dicey.
“You have to ask yourself, how in the world would you know that that thorn or piece of cross is real?” said Robert Kennedy, professor of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas. “The answer is, you simply can’t.”
Saints’ relics are more likely to be authentic if they come from saints of the past 500 years, he said. Tracing their origin is easier than something 2,000 years old.
The important thing is “to be honest about what we know and what we don’t know,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior analyst for the Religion News Service.
“There’s two ways to look at an exhibit like this,” said Reese. “That these are all real relics and we want to venerate them. Another is, these are historical artifacts, not necessarily going back to the time of Jesus, but many centuries showing how people practiced their faith.
“Even if they’re not authentic, if someone is approaching them with sincerity and an open heart, I think the spirit can move them — just as with a sunset or a painting.”
None of this matters to Catholics such as Donna Ploof, of Chanhassen. Sure, you can’t know for sure if these are true relics. But you can’t prove they’re not either, she said.
“God has made so many ways for us to be close to him,” said Ploof. “This is just one way.”