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This week a relic of St Francis Xavier is visiting schools and parishes around the Archdiocese of Brisbane.
Francis Xavier was born in 1506 in Spain. While studying in Paris he met Saint Ignatius of Loyola, became one of the first Jesuits, and went to Goa (India) as a missionary. Francis travelled extensively through southeast Asia, winning many converts.
The relic, a forearm, is rarely taken from its home in the main Jesuit church in Rome but is touring Australia for 3 months as part of the celebration of the Year of Grace.
The visit of relics is challenging to those who feel uncomfortable about venerating parts of the body of a saint.
In the early church, altars were constructed over the tombs of martyrs; medieval cathedrals often have an altar built over the bones of the saintly founder/bishop. In these cases there is a clear connection with the tradition of faith in a particular place.
The 1977 Rite of Dedication of a Church and an Altar affirms the tradition of placing relics beneath the altar but insists that the greatest care be taken to determine whether the relics in question are authentic. It is better for an altar to be dedicated without relics than to have relics of doubtful authenticity placed beneath it. (#5)
A relic belongs beneath the altar, not on or set into the table of the altar. The rite quotes a letter of Ambrose on the relationship between the martyr and Christ: Let the triumphant victims rest in the place where Christ is victim: he however who suffered for all, upon the altar; they who have been redeemed by his suffering, beneath the altar. As we celebrate the Eucharist at the altar, a relic helps us make the link between the liturgy and a holy Christian life.
There are obvious difficulties with respect to obtaining significant relics in Australia. Apart from the tomb of Mary MacKillop at Mount Street in North Sydney, they are extremely scarce. Consequently, relics have not played a large role in popular devotion in this country. No doubt, for Australian Catholics of European background, this lack has been a test of faith.
The idea of dividing the remains of a martyr or other saint into multiple relics is generally viewed by Catholics in Australia today with some repugnance. For us, veneration of the dead demands respect for the integrity of the dead person’s remains. However, customs vary and practices change. We have now come to accept cremation, whereas half a century ago it was widely regarded as offensive to Christian faith in the resurrection. Dividing the bones of a saint is meant to multiply and spread the veneration and devotion surrounding the holy person.
As we receive the relics of St Francis Xavier and reflect upon the place of popular piety in Catholic life, we should guard against an unseemly preoccupation with miracles or superstition. Rather we remember that with this arm, Francis always pointed towards Christ, bringing many thousands in India and Japan into the Church.
The witness of his poverty continues to inspire and his tireless efforts as a missionary serve as a model of particular relevance at this time when the Church is calling for a “new evangelisation”.