I See Dead People
Growing up in a Charismatic Protestant faith tradition, I frequently heard sermons on the passage found in Hebrews 12:1: Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us. (NABRE, Catholic Book Publishing Corp., NJ., 2011.) Over the course of my lifetime, I heard hours and hours of sermons about perseverance and letting go of the things we carry that hold us back and all of that. What was almost never spoken of was the first part of that verse, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses….” The one time I remember someone speaking of it, they compared that “cloud of witnesses” to a stadium full of spectators watching a race and cheering on the athletes. The saints who had gone before us were all very remote and not really all that interested in our day-to-day lives. In short, there was no Communion of Saints. When I became a Catholic, I learned a very different Heavenly reality.
When I first came into the Church, the process of selecting a Confirmation Saint taught me the Saints were more interested in my life than I had originally been taught. While I selected St. Brigid of Ireland as my Confirmation Saint, I still felt funny actually talking to her. And the entire concept of relics and venerating relics was frankly gruesome. I couldn’t imagine there being any impact to looking at someone’s bone, or a collection of people’s bones, no matter how holy they were. I wasn’t really interested in seeing dead people. It took a rather special event in my life to change my mind.
A few years back we had an amazing thing happen at St. Timothy’s in Mesa. A traveling collection of relics came to our parish. Given my upbringing, I wasn’t sure what to expect and felt a little uncomfortable when I went into the display. That feeling disappeared once I entered the hall. There was set, rank upon rank, table upon table, the great Saints of the Church. People were filing past the relics in absolute silence. There was reverence and awe on their faces as they held the relic of this special person or that special person. When I held in my hand the relic of St. John of the Cross, I began to understand the Communion of Saints and just how special their relics are.
I have always had a special place in my heart for St. John of the Cross. Once I decided to become Catholic, while I was waiting for RCIA classes to begin, I went across the street to the library and started checking out every book they had on the Catholic Church. The first book I ever read that was written by a Saint was The Dark Night written by St. John of the Cross. I had finally found someone who explained my life to me. And now, years later, as an Aspirant in the St. Joseph Community of Discalced Carmelites, there I was, holding a piece of him in my hand.
But my favorite relic that was there wasn’t the bone of St. John of the Cross or anyone else. My favorite relic was a piece of the True Cross. I could see what looked like rust stains on it, but I knew it wasn’t rust. It was blood. Two thousand years after the fact, I was face-to-face with the cross stained with the blood of my Beloved. The spotless Lamb of God, slain for me and for all of us. It was a holy moment. Underlying all of that, was a profound gratitude that God had told me to “Go be Catholic”. And that I had obeyed.
I still see dead people. On November 1, 2014, the Feast of All Saints, the Reliquarium opened at St. Timothy’s. There, in a beautiful room nestled between the church office and the gift shop are housed some 70-plus first and second class relics. Some are Saints that might cause you to ask “Saint Who?” and “What did they do?” There are also many everyone knows. In the center of the room is a first class relic (meaning some part of the body, like bone or hair) of Saint Timothy. He shares his display case with his Father in the Faith, St. Paul. To the left are relics of St. Felicitas, St. Teresa of Calcutta, Blessed (soon to be Saint) Elizabeth of the Trinity, St Teresa of Avila, St Therese of Lisieux, Margaret Mary Alacoque, and St. Francis of Assisi, just to name a few. To the right you will find the likes of St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Charbel, Blessed Francisco and Jacinta of Fatima, St Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Maximillian Kolbe and St. Padre Pio. But holding pride of place, along the one entire wall, catching your eye as soon as you walk in, are the first or second-class relics of the Twelve Apostles. A relic of Simon Peter’s tomb, bits of St. James’ and St. John’s bones. The very foundation of the Church present today.
It has become the tradition at St. Timothy’s to bring out each Saint’s relic for veneration on their Feast Day, except when it falls on a Sunday, of course. This means that when I go into the church for Morning Prayer tomorrow, Padre Pio will be there to greet me, so to speak. And he will pray with us and serve as a reminder that whether there are twenty of us, or only two of us, in reality the church is overflowing with the Saints and Angels. We just can’t see them.
The Communion of Saints isn’t just a crowd of witnesses sitting in the heavenly bleachers cheering us on. They are with us always. At every Mass. At every Baptism. At every moment of our lives, they are as close as a plea for their intercession. nd they are eager to give it. What was true for St. Therese is true for all of the Saints: I want to spend my heaven in doing good on earth. (St. Therese of Lisieux, The Final Conversations, tr. John Clarke (Washington: ICS 1977, 102).)
If you would like to visit the Reliquarium at St. Timothy’s Catholic Church, visiting hours are:
Saturday and Sunday: 6am-7pm
St. Timothy’s Catholic Church is located at:
1730 W. Guadalupe Rd., Mesa, AZ 85202