A warm heart may still beat beneath the glass

Mark Greaves takes soundings among Catholics as the relics of St Anthony begin an eight-day British tour

This article was first published in The Times on 26 October 2013.

Pilgrims venerate the relics of St Anthony at Westminster Cathedral (Photo: Diocese of Westminster)Pilgrims venerate the relics at Westminster Cathedral (Photo: Diocese of Westminster)

Today the relics of a 13th-century saint begin an eight-day tour of Scotland and England. A friar in a rented van will take them to cathedrals and churches from Aberdeen to London. Large crowds will pray in front of the relics, touch the glass they are sealed in, and maybe place flowers by them. The practice may seem bizarrely medieval to non-believers, but over the past few years the veneration of relics has had a revival among Catholics in Britain.

These particular relics are of St ­Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of lost things. They are a piece of bone and a layer of skin. Each is sealed in glass and placed in an ornamental container, the reliquary. They have been brought from Padua by Father Mario Conte, a Franciscan friar. He sees the tour as a way for people to feel close to a saint they regard as a “friend of the family”. When people touch or kiss the reliquary, he says, it’s “an act of love, a search for a connection”.

Others may find the notion hard to fathom, but Father Conte says everyone keeps relics of a sort. He keeps his mother’s wedding ring: “I know it’s a piece of gold, a common thing I can buy anywhere, but at the same time it’s very important to me and when I hold it in my hand I feel a connection with her.”

The relics of Catholic saints are more than just keepsakes. Since the 2nd century, when martyrs’ bones were first venerated, they were regarded as joining heaven and earth — the saint was in heaven, but still had a link to his or her earthly remains. And, as saints are next to God, if we pray to them they may tug His sleeve on our behalf.

Father Conte says it is understandable that people pray to St Anthony about their problems.

“We all want God to help in one way or another,” he says. “No one can say they don’t need any help.”

The tour would probably not be happening were it not for the visit of St ­Thérèse of ­Lisieux’s relics four years ago. The ­remains of the much-loved 19th-­century French nun attracted tens of thousands of pilgrims. It changed how Catholics saw relics.

Josephine Siedlecka, who runs the indcatholicnews.com site, says the idea of relics — the “adoration of so and so’s big toe” — used to seem to her “slightly repugnant”. But during the St Thérèse tour she began to think differently. “There was such a beautiful atmosphere,” she says. “It meant so much to people.”

Even Catholic bishops were sceptical about the tour at first. The Right Rev Crispian Hollis, then Bishop of Portsmouth, says he and his fellow bishops weren’t “over the moon with enthusiasm” initially. Relics were regarded as “distant things in the past” and associated with pre-1960s forms of worship.

However, he describes the experience of the relics visiting his cathedral as ­“extraordinary”. The “sheer intensity of prayer,” he says, made it “one of the most important couple of days” in the cathedral during his time as bishop. He adds that it wasn’t that people “came to gawp at relics”. Instead, he says, people were praying that St Thérèse “would help them get closer to God”.

In the Catholic Church relics went out of fashion after the reforms of the 1960s. Instead of being placed on altars they were put away in boxes. In Oxford Jesuits even took their relics to the crematorium.

Alexandra Walsham, a professor of history at Cambridge, says there have always been “recurrent cycles of concern about relics”. Protestants rejected the practice, of course, but so did the iconoclasts of the 8th century. Christian humanists were worried about it, too. Walsham suggests that Christian­ity has an “ambivalence about the ­materiality of religion”. A fear of idolatry, of “external objects getting in the way of a personal relationship with God”, is present from the start, she says.

Catholic bishops took two years to approve the St Thérèse tour, according to its organiser, Monsignor Keith ­Barltrop. They were worried about ­upsetting the Anglican establishment, he says, and “terrified” of seeming ­fanatical.

“They want to present the faith as something bland and reasonable,” he says.

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