Relics offer personal connection to saints

By Beth Griffin

Catholic News Service

Thousands of people in New York and New Jersey spent some time recently with a good friend they had never seen before his February visit to the U.S.

Relics of St. Anthony of Padua toured eight Franciscan churches in the two states Feb. 15-23. More than 8,000 attended eucharistic services that included veneration of the relics.

"People really have a strong affection for Saint Anthony. It’s almost unbelievable. We call it the ‘Anthonian phenomenon’ –– that there is such a connection with a person who died almost 800 years ago. He’s seen as a friend and a brother," said Conventual Franciscan Father Mario Conte.

He is executive editor of the Messenger of St. Anthony magazine in Padua, Italy. The publication sponsored the visit with the Franciscan Friars of the Basilica of St. Anthony, also in Padua.

The tour marked the 750th anniversary of the discovery of St. Anthony’s incorrupt remains by St. Bonaventure. Father Conte said Bonaventure was present in his role as the Franciscans’ superior when St. Anthony’s original tomb was opened in 1263 to transfer the bones to the new basilica dedicated to the saint.

Onlookers were surprised to find St. Anthony’s intact tongue and "vocal apparatus" among his skeletal remains, according to Father Conte. Franciscans consider this a sign that the saint was a messenger of God’s love whose preaching brought people back to God, he said.

Interest in relics is not weird, Father Conte told Catholic News Service. "We all have relics at home, not body parts, but personal objects that belonged to someone we loved, who is no longer there."

Father Conte called his late mother’s wedding ring "a link of love and a connection. I feel her next to me when I hold it."

Saints’ relics help people overcome the abstract and make a connection with the holy, Father Conte said. "As believers, we also need symbols."

He stressed that relics do not have magical powers. "Saints do not perform miracles. Only God performs miracles, but saints are intercessors. They are there next to God, pulling God’s jacket and saying, ‘Please help this man! Please help this woman!’"

Father Conte said venerating the relic is akin to an act of friendship or an act of love, "like giving your hand to St. Anthony and thanking him for something he has done for you, or asking for a favor."

Veneration followed Masses at the tour stops –– Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, Staten Island and the Bronx in New York and Clifton in New Jersey.

St. Anthony (1195-1231) is a doctor of the church. His feast day is June 13. Born in Lisbon, Portugal, he joined the Augustinians at age 15. In 1220, he entered the Franciscans to become an African missionary and was sent to Morocco.

However, poor health forced his return to Europe and a storm at sea deposited him in Sicily. He traveled to Assisi, Italy, where his gift for preaching was recognized and put to use in that country and in France. St. Francis appointed him the order’s first "lector in theology"; he also was the superior of several communities. Many believers seek his intercession when something is lost.

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