The approaching feast of All Saints gives us a chance to make use of two of the most distinctive features of our church. The first is the one everyone notices as soon as they walk in on the feast day: the 52 saints and angels in the sanctuary looking on, with lamps burning in front of them. Their presence helps us to visualise what actually happens during every Mass — that for an all too brief moment, we really are in their company and, more importantly, in the presence of God himself, as Christ opens heaven on earth for us.
The other thing we put to good use is our vast collection of relics. You should be able to spot the reliquaries on and behind the altar, each containing small fragments of the remains of a saint. And with the cupboard doors of our Relic Chapel open for the feast, you should be able to see some of the more substantial bones, while there are even more smaller relics stored elsewhere in the chapel.
When we think about it, Catholic devotion to relics is odd. We can understand the less gruesome ones. Our church once possessed the pen with which Bl. Pius IX signed the dogma declaring the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady. That was both a historic memento as well as a connection to the holy pope (sadly it was given away long before the Oratory arrived). We have a great collection of letters written by saints, and even a book that once belonged to Saint Philip and has his signature in it. These are precious in the same way that we might treasure items left to us by our own deceased loved ones. But our most venerated relics are those of the saints’ bodies themselves, usually bits of bone, blood or hair. And we tend not to preserve the body parts of our family and friends in order to remember them once they have gone.
There is a specific reason that it is the bodies of the saints that are our holiest relics, and it is tied to our faith in the resurrection. When a saint dies, his or her soul goes to heaven, while the body awaits the Last Judgment, when we will all share fully in the resurrection, as Christ already has done ever since he rose on Easter Sunday. It is the hope of this resurrection that means the body is not simply abandoned as no longer needed, but a kind of link continues to exist between body and soul. That means the bodies of the saints on earth form a link with their souls, which are now in heaven. These relics form a tiny gap in the fabric of this world, through which our prayers can reach the saints in heaven.
This is the real reason that the early Christians met underground in the Roman catacombs for Mass. It wasn’t all about hiding from persecution. Even when no one was trying to arrest them, the Church continued to celebrate Mass in the catacombs. It has been the custom of the Church since the earliest centuries always to celebrate Mass on the relics of the martyrs, because they form a link between heaven and earth. And on top of that, the Church on earth wanted to celebrate Mass in the company of the Church in heaven. It’s why our own St Philip would spend so much time praying in the catacombs of Rome, because surrounded by the remains of so many saints, we are closer to heaven.
On the feast of All Saints especially, we have these visible reminders that we have the saints on our side, to help, support and inspire us throughout this life. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” (Hebrews 12:1)
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