L’Osservatore Chicago: Relics
(POSTED: 1/21/13) I quite fancy the neat little half-circles of fingernail that line my sink after a weekly clipping. They may be only modified epidermis, as the dictionary says, but to me they are like diminutive tiaras. They are fetching. And, quite possibly, powerful.
There is a pious overlay I ascribe to these body parts which were recently part of me. At some level I tell myself – I’m amused at the thought – my nail clippings are “first-class relics.”
I see myself back at a grammar school desk, listening to a nun explaining carefully about the intercessory value of relics of saints. She is describing the intricate delineations among relics: First-class relics are actual parts of saints’ bodies (like my fingernails). Second-class relics, as I recall, are clothes that the saints wore, objects that had touched the saints’ bodies. Then there are objects that had touched the clothes that saints had worn, and objects that had touched objects that had touched the objects that had touched a first- or second- or third-class relic.
The whole subject of relics sounds charming and old Church to me now when all the portentous talk is about nuns versus Rome or who President Obama should pick as ambassador to the Vatican.
Maybe I cling to the notion because of our family experience of relics. When we named our first child Felicity, Sister Mary Donald, the classics scholar of the Mundelein College faculty, gave our new-born one of her most precious possessions: A relic of St. Felicitas.
Our second family relic was a crucifix given to my great-grandmother by Jesuit Father Arnold Damen, after whom the street in Chicago is named. Father Damen was the founding pastor of Holy Family Church, my grandmother’s church, the second-oldest church in Chicago and the original Jesuit church in the Second City.
Perhaps it was because Father Damen was associated with a miracle when he “saved” the church from the Chicago fire headed its way by invoking Our Lady of Perpetual Help and promising candles lit in her honor, but every time there was an emergency in my family circle, Father Damen’s crucifix was brought out. There must have been a slew of such occasions because in time the crucifix lost its corpus.
There was no loss of faith in its efficacy, however, not even when it lost its crossbar. Years trundled on. The “crucifix” was brought out for ills of every sort until it was a small cluster of sticks which my Aunt Mary brought to St. Francis Hospital and tucked under Uncle Bill’s bed sheets. He did not survive, nor did the cruci-sticks.
I don’t know what my grandchildren would think of this story. I don’t suppose any of them heard much about relics in school. But to me they are part of the miracle that has kept the Church on track for two millennia, using everything that came to hand – from nail clippings to gorgeous Victorian Gothic churches like Holy Family.
Margery Frisbie, a graduate of Mundelein College, has raised lots of kids and written lots of columns. She is the author of several local histories, two graphic histories published in Europe, and An Alley in Chicago, the Life and Legacy of Monsignor John Egan.
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