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Life is tough. Nuns are tougher.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Saints Perserved by Us

Here on "Blogger" as you type out your blog entry, the site automatically saves your work. A little icon changes by itself from 'save now' to "SAVED". I get a bang out of that. SAVED indeed. Here's an easy breezy question and answer for a Monday.

yellowhammer said...
Bless you sister! Your grace, good humor and tolerance are a welcome relief to the divisiveness of the world. Bless your posters too - it's been a long time since I've read comments without cringing from the nastiness! :)

Anyway, I'm a Catholic who gets a little freaked out by statues. The statues I am to are generally MEANT to evoke that response (God the Father with eyes and mouth half-open, looking very much like a 4-meter tall Charlton Heston moaning in pain; representations of Christ in a glass coffin bearing all the marks of His Passion).

What I can't get out of my head are the statues of saints in glass coffins that can be found underneath the altars of churches in Rome (San Francesco e Ripa has a great deal of them). They are nearly life size and always seem to be in great pain; I wasn't the only one getting freaked out - there was a small girl frantically asking her mother what that pretty lady was doing lying trapped under glass.

Is it just another way of representing the saints in repose/at the moment of death (such as with the statues of Christ that I mentioned) or do these statues have a deeper significance, such as they contain relics of the saints they depict?

I know its not a spiritual question or anything, but I just couldn't find anything about them. Thanks for your time!

Our readers are wonderful. I thank you on everyone's behalf!

As I mentioned briefly to you in a recent post, if you see a "statue" of a saint under glass, that's not a statue. Unless the figure is standing upright in a glass case. That's a statue. We never stand the dead ones upright. Well, almost never.

Now, without seeing it for myself, I can't say for sure what you were seeing. From what I can see, however, the famous sculptures in the particular church are not under glass. But I've always been able to tell what's a statue and what ..isn't. Here's a statue in glass. It's St. Tarcisius over his own tomb.

And here's St. John-Marie Baptiste Vianney, in person.

So here's what happens: the first step to sainthood is to dig up the person to make sure we have the right body. We don't want a lot of St. Expedituses and St. Philomenas to deal with going forward. But let's back up one more step.

The road to canonization begins with the faithful pointing out the heroic virtue of the future saint. That often begins with people hanging around the gravesite venerating the person, claiming miracles, that sort of thing. So before things get out of hand, we make sure that the person you think is in the grave actually is in that grave. We want to attribute miracles where miracles are due.

There used to be a fifty year rule. The Church didn't consider canonization until fifty years had passed, waiting for the smoke to clear and everyone to calm down so a careful examination can be made. No more St. Avias and Christophers.

No matter what, the person has generally been buried for a least ten years when they
are dug up and some of them--lo and behold--are fresh as a daisy. They often exude a sweet odor. Sometimes it's only a part of them that has lasted, intact. For example, St. Anthony of Padua was famous for his speaking abilities. The rest of him is gone, but his tongue is still with us.

People find that pretty remarkable. They're not going to just say, "Wow, how about that" and stick the person back in the ground. Although, I think they actually did do that with St. Bernadette, because I remember reading that there she was, incorrupt, and the nuns washed her and put her back and when they dug her up again after another tne years of so, she was a little....off(from the washing). That's when they covered her in wax.

When you get right down to it, you'll find that a lot of them don't look all that great. So if there was a child saying, "that pretty lady" chances are the body was covered in wax. They are 'nearly life size' because people used to be a lot shorter, in general. You'll need to talk to an undertaker to find out why they appear to be in great pain. They were not caught in the moment of death. That's just something that happens.

To answer your last question, the statues don't contain the relics of the saints. They ARE the relics of the saints. It IS a spiritual thing, a reminder of how our heroic virtue has lasting effects.

Keep in mind, that as a Catholic, you don't have to venerate saints. Saint veneratie is highly encouraged, but it is optional. We ask the saint to pray for us and we are inspired by their examples and their struggles. Statues and holy cards just help us keep them in mind. I know there are a lot of people that would just as soon keep them in mind without looking at them lying there under glass.

Personally, I love it. But you can skip it if you like and no one will mind.

yellowhammer said...
Thank you sister, I was the one who asked about the Saints in glass coffins. Now I am REALLY, REALLY freaked out.

Call me a doubting Thomas but wouldn't that mean that they were all incorruptible? I thought as much at the time, but what gave me pause was the fact that there were at least 2 of them in one church alone and they appeared to be in an excellent state of preservation. What are the chances of a St. Bernadette Soubiros happening that often? Or were the earthly remains encased and preserved in plaster (which would explain why one saint's finger appeared to have broken off)?

Yes, that's what it means. There are at least 250 of them. They are all Catholics. How about that? The only Protestant one we know of is Medgar Evers, the slain civil rights leader, but he could have been over embalmed.

I'll bet if you dug up Abe Lincoln he might be in fair condition, because after his assasination, his body was taken all over the country on his way to his home in Springfield, Illinois. Everybody was so sad that the train was mobbed everywhere and the trip took weeks and weeks. Abe was re-embalmed over and over again.

What are the chances indeed, of all these Catholics being incorrupt? That's why we should pay attention.

Keep in mind, that as a Catholic, you don't have to venerate saints at all. You can ignore them totally, except for what the writers of the New Testament have to say to us. Saint veneration is highly encouraged, but it is optional. We ask the saints to pray for us and we are inspired by their examples and their struggles. Statues and holy cards just help us keep them in mind, like scrapbooking and family albums and depictions of war heroes on horseback in bronze. No one makes a fuss about that giant statue of Abe Lincoln at the Lincoln memorial, now do they?

I know there are a lot of people that would just as soon keep them in mind without looking at them lying there under glass.

Personally, I love it. But you can skip it if you like and no one will mind.

And finally, the one saint's finger probably appeared to be broken off because is was, in fact, broken off. I know this disturbs people. What can I say? Considering what a huge craze scrapebooking has become, where people keep every snippet of paper from every move they've made, I should think folks would be more understanding about why we want to keep our saints around and since we have them, share them.

But I understand. Please note, however, that every altar has to have the relic of a saint in it, so we have to break off little pieces. (More on St. Catherine LaBoure's pieces) That's the reason that they are now under glass, so you don't grab a finger and run. And to keep them dust free, etc.

There was a time when you could send away for a relic of your very own. People still get away with it by somehow pretending to be a church, but you are not supposed to ask for relics any longer. Keep your hands off the hands!


RadioPie said...

That's neat!
In Quebec, there's a big shrine to the famous mother-daughter dream team, Sts. Anne and Mary, and they have tiny chunks of both of them on display. (Mary's looks like a finger bone, but the piece of St. Anne is literally a "chunk" - just a little square of indescernable body part!) The last time I went there I was in the 7th or 8th grade, and I was amazed that the church could keep track of something so tiny for thousands of years, while I was "lose" my homework assignments somewhere between the bus stop and home.

Laura The Crazy Mama said...

Ooopsie, I don't see the photo for " Here's a statue in glass. It's St. Tarcisius over his own tomb"
I only see the sitting picture of St. Catherine.

Sarah - Kala said...

For more stories on incorruptibles, read The Incorruptibles by Joan Carroll Cruz. It's a little freaky, but neat! There are photos, too. Her book on Eucharistic Miracles is pretty cool, too.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much Sister!

I have long been fascinated by the Incorruptibles - I just didn't realise that I would ever get a chance to see one. Funny how things just land on one's lap without one even realising it :)

I do venerate Saints (in fact, a miracle recently happened in my life through the intercession of one - how apt that you just featured St. Therese of Lisieux's shorn hair!) and despite my discomfort at certain...expressionistic renditions, I do actually feel comforted when I see their figures in church.

There's a traditional Lenten procession in my home country where certain statues are rigged so that they would suddenly appear to move at key moments - imagine how THAT freaks everyone out, especially the kids who get told that if they're naughty Saint So-and-So will come down from their pedestal and kick them in the behind!

I used to think that it was a bit excessive, until I moved to another country where I hardly see any figures even in Catholic churches and it just feels - I don't know, sad is one word that comes to mind.

But I digress. By the way, have you seen the movie Millions? Please watch it if you haven't - it's about a young boy who sees saints everyday.

Anonymous said...

OK, here's a dumb question for you. I've recently heard that cremation is ok, but not encouraged for Catholics because of the resurrection of the dead. But I can't follow this line of thought for a number of reasons, one of which is that if being all in one piece and in one place mattered, saints wouldn't be in little pieces in altars. (Another is that I just think God can cope. And bodies mostly turn to dust after a while anyway, a system God devised...) Anyway, can you explain this to me? It came up in a course on Grief today, and I was puzzled.
Thanks so much.

PraiseDivineMercy said...

Where did you hear that people are not supposed to possess relics? I ask because I have a second class relic of Blessed Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac that my friend received during a trip to Europe.
His biography: http://www.catholic-forum.com/saints/sainta66.htm
If I'm not supposed to have it I will find a church to which to donate it. I do keep it in a small home altar.

La Bibliotecaria Laura said...

Second class relics are only touched to and Original Relic--hence the designation as second class. So they're touch a rosary, scapular, etc. to Saint's relic, and then sell it to you.

Second class relics are different then what Sister is talkin' about.

La Bilbliotecaria Laura

Anonymous said...

I would question the St Anne and Mary relics. First, there would be no relics of Mary (if that's the Mother of God you're referring to) as she has been assumed into heaven-intact. As for St Anne, I would question that as for the timing thing. I belong to St Joseph's church and I'm sure there's no relic of St Joseph in our altar. I'm sure there's another relic, just not his-highly unlikely, I think.

Elsbeth said...

Dear Sister,
Another question from a protestant. Tomorrow is Ash-wednesday, in our protestant tradition the receiving of the ash cross on the forehead is not a custom. But I would very much like to receive it as a sign of entering Lent, a time of concentration on God. Would it be allright for me to receive the ashcross in the catholic church. ( Ofcourse without taking part in the Eucharist.)

RadioPie said...

Anonymous -
Now that I think about it, it does seem odd. I can say this: I did confuse myself - It was Anne's relic that was the bone, and Mary's that looked like a tiny square of...something. I tried to do a little research on the intertubes, and came up with this: http://www.catholictradition.org/Anne/anne1-4.htm - information about the relic of St. Anne. But, I couldn't find anything about the Mary relic, meaning I either imagined it, or it wasn't ACTUALLY a piece of Mary. Maybe it was something that touched her or something. Her relic is located in the chapel of the Immaculate Conception, beneath the basilica of St. Anne.
Their official website is located here: http://www.ssadb.qc.ca/en/index.htm

...if you're interested.

Anonymous said...


You certainly may receive ashes tomorrow. I checked with my parish priest just to be sure, and he gave you the thumbs up!

Anonymous said...

You said Catholics are not bound to venerate the saints, only highly encouraged. Does that go for the Blessed Virgin too? What about the talk of her being the "Mediatrix"?

Anonymous said...

I can't tell who is who. Who is the nun with the red pillow? Who is the man under glass at the bottom?

Unknown said...

To be honest, I think the whole saints under glass thing is creepy. The body is not the saint, the soul is in heaven. The saint is in heaven. It feels to me like a hold over from before people understood that certain conditions can preserve a body without a lot of corruption. For instance, a Bog Mummy.

I'll keep to the veneration of the Saints in Heaven, and leave the under glass for the others.

Peace All

Anonymous said...

Greetings of Peace and Love

May I ask if what can we do to obtain a relic of St. Tarcisius?
We the Knights of the Blessed Sacrament wish a relic of the said Saint for public veneration, we wish that you can help us to have one.

God bless...

Russell James Dalaguan said...

can i ask for a relic of St. John-Marie Baptiste Vianney? for my private devotion. this is my email: mrneautral@gmail.com

and for the address: Alturas Habitat Village,Block 12, Lot 5, Tabalong, Dauis, Bohol, Philippines.