A preserved arm and hand of St Francis Xavier is presently touring Australia for veneration by the faithful as part of a Year of Grace initiative sponsored by the Australian Catholic Bishops. In today's commentary Fr Daniel Donovan offers some scepticism on the value of relics as a tool for evengelisation or catechesis in a country like Australia today.
Disarm the doors: the relic is coming!
On Sunday September 16, when Qantas Flight QF 2 arrived in Sydney from London, Bishop Peter Comensoli would have scrambled for his hand or "arm" baggage when the Captain requested that the Flight Attendants "dis-arm" the doors. The Bishop was the Archdiocesan courier of the "right arm of St Francis Xavier" for its "National Journey" of Australia until it returns to the Church of Gesu on December 4. This National Journey is yet another link in a veritable chain of relics which have fuelled a neo-pietism within the Sydney Church since 2002.
This veneration of relics which Church authorities have managed to amass over the centuries belong to another time of Church history when miracles, pilgrimages, shrines and the veneration of relics were synonymous with popular religion. The people were illiterate and were generally "taken for granted" by Church leaders. Today the Christian community is more sophisticated with different levels of faith shaping the relationships between its members and the Ultimate Reality (God). These stages are not meant to be comparative or elitist as if "higher" stages were superior or "better than" the "lower" ones. Rather faith development follows a similar trajectory to human development which Paul describes, "when I was a child I thought and reasoned as a child, but now I am an adult, I gave up childish ways" [1 Cor 13: 11-13]. There is an intrinsic connection between the person's greater capacity to reason and his or her faith response to life. Therefore there will be a range of responses to the relic of St Francis Xavier within the Sydney Church and all are valid. However why were the relics brought to Australia? The relics (a right arm) separated from the body are simply macabre. For many the relics would have shades of the Television sitcom The Addams Family and the disembodied right hand, "Thing". So is the veneration of relics from the sixteenth century relevant for Sydney Catholics in the Third Millennium or is it symptomatic of a hierarchy in a time warp?
Bishop Comensoli's Attitude is Patronising to the Sydney Church!
Since the beginning of the millennium, there has developed a definite policy of appointing clergy from other dioceses and states as bishops within New South Wales. With the retirements of Bishops Cremin and Robinson, this trend has resulted in the appointment of auxiliary bishops in the Archdiocese of Sydney drawn from religious orders and regional dioceses. The most recent appointee, Peter Comensoli like other recent auxiliaries, lacks that native empathy for the Archdiocese and is coming across as patronising to both clergy and laity.
The point of Comensoli's letter (30th August) was to inform the clergy that "Planning for the Pilgrimage of Grace (the National Journey of the Relic of St Francis Xavier) is reaching its peak". Yet the letter itself needed to be edited to correct misprints and to establish a consistent style. For example, the "greeting " was unusual: "Dear Monsignors, dear Fathers" which appears to have been influenced by the greeting in Allan Sherman's nonsense song (1963), Hello Mudder, hello Fadduh. What was the purpose of such an inept greeting? It would be preferable if he had reproduced Sherman's song's ending; "Monsignors, Fathers "kindly disregard this letter!"
Practical aspects of dates and times needed greater specificity. If the letter (as stated) was meant to signal "the peak of planning" for the National Journey of the relics of St Francis Xavier then there should have been a specific timeline for the delivery of posters and pamphlets to parishes. Obviously, priests involved in parish life have more to occupy their time than keeping an eye on the post "tomorrow" and "next week" for pamphlets. This letter should have provided exact dates so that the parishes could plan times and places "to prepare the people" for the veneration of the relics. The lack of specific details for parishes tended to belie the claim that the "planning is reaching its peak". By contrast Comensoli was able to provide precise details of his arrival in Sydney to the minute.
Terminology was inconsistent especially, in the attached Itinerary. For example, there was the mismatching of "arrival" a (noun) and "departs" a (verb) to describe the relics arrival and departure from the various places of veneration. In fact this mismatching of terms accounts for grammatical mistake, "Departs of Relics" (under Tuesday 18th September). Likewise there was a need for uniformity in the description of the "right arm" as either "Relics" or "relics" (with or without the capitalisation) but not both within the same document/letter.
The reference to the "two pamphlets" provided a glimpse of the regard in which the people of God are currently, held within the Archdiocese. The "pamphlets" are clearly, not catechetical but are rather "guidelines" for venerating relics and to provide a background of the Saint's life and legacy. The suggestion that these pamphlets are "to prepare the people" is condescending as if the people of God are unfamiliar with Church's practice and customs of venerating saints. On the other hand, Church authorities have not any hesitation imposing upon the people a new translation of the Mass and de-emphasising their responsibility for ongoing renewal and commissioning "to make disciples of all nations" [Mt 28:20].
It is difficult to believe that both Cardinal Pell and Bishop Comensoli are uncertain about what actually, constitutes "catechesis". Catechesis is derived from the Greek verb "to echo" and refers to the "echoing" or "proclaiming" of the Christian message (kerygma); "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again" [1 Corinthians 1:23-24 and Rom 10: 9-11]. Therefore Cardinal Pell was incorrect to describe the Mass as catechesis rather the Mass is the community's participation in Jesus' Paschal mystery. The Introduction to the Eucharistic Prayers for Masses with Children [EPC #21] clearly states that the children's participation in the Eucharistic celebration should "be preceded by and followed by a catechesis". Clearly, the Mass is not catechesis but celebration of the mystery of faith. The auxiliary Bishop is also incorrect when he labels "guidelines" on the veneration of relics as "catechesis".
Church Veneration or a Visit with the Addams Family?
As Sydney theatre goers prepare for the stage version of The Addams Family, the Archdiocese could not have picked a less opportune time for the National Journey of St Francis Xavier's right arm. The Church can, like the members of the Addams family, be "mysterious and spooky" too. The humour in the sitcom turns on the family's inability to recognise that their life style was "creepy and kooky". On the contrary, they believed that their behaviour was quite normal and they pitied those "others" who did not share their way of life.
Geoffrey Chaucer in Canterbury Tales presents a Church of pilgrimages and veneration of relics and he documents "the gap between personal piety and institutional corruption". This medieval European spirituality resulted in the Reformation and the splintering of western Christianity. Veneration of relics can never replace active participation in the Church's liturgy.
Recently, a woman Religious spoke of her experience with the relics of St Francis Xavier's arm when as a young nun her Superiors decided that it would be an honour for her to keep vigil before the relics through the early hours of the morning. Alone in a dark chapel with a single spotlight on the relics which she describes as "a blackened arm with a protruding bone"; she became so frightened that she hid under the organ until she was relieved from her vigil by another Sister.
This experience does raise the wisdom of including children in Years 3-6 in venerating the relics? Could the children's participation in venerating these relics be considered as emotional or religious abuse with a lasting impact on their psychological or emotional development? Reports have already circulated within the Archdiocese of children resisting their parents' efforts to have them (the children) touch the relics of St Francis Xavier!
Finally, there is a statement on the Archdiocesan website by Mr Greg Bisset, national manager of InvoCare: "we are honoured to participate in the pilgrimage and see it as a privilege to serve the Church in this way". Bisset describes his company's participation in the relics' National Journey as a "privilege to serve the Church" but it is also, an opportunity to grow his funeral group in regional Australia. As InvoCare transports the relics around the nation, it has a perfect opportunity and credentials to seize up possible takeover companies for the group. It always is a concern when "big Church" is too close to big business and raises serious questions about the Church's involvement in the Funeral Industry.
Then again, it could just be that Addams Family factor at work in the Sydney Archdiocese and Bishop Comensoli's promise that the relics will be coming in the next two months to "a Church near you"!
Fr Daniel Donovan, submitted to Catholica 30 Sep 2012
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2012 Fr Daniel Donovan