By Anna Weaver
HONOLULU (CNS) — Broken pieces of bone. Those are the physical remains coming back to Hawaii Oct. 17 as a first-class relic of Blessed Damien de Veuster after his Oct. 11 canonization.
The relic will tour the islands before being permanently placed in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace in Honolulu, where Blessed Damien was ordained as a priest of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.
It is a small foot bone secured in a small tin box housed in a 15-inch-long wooden reliquary that will travel from island to island in a larger case made of koa, a Hawaiian hardwood.
To Catholics who will venerate the relic, it’s not the bone fragments themselves that have meaning, but what they represent.
“A relic points to something that we cannot see, to that person and the holiness of his or her life,” said Holy Cross Father Peter Rocca, rector of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, which has hundreds of relics.
“It also allows for an occasion to pray to the saints for their intercession and to assist us in living a Christian life,” he told the Hawaii Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Honolulu Diocese.
The tradition of relics started with early Christians who gathered to worship in the catacombs near the graves of Christian martyrs. Later it became tradition that a saint’s bones were buried in or under a church’s altar.
There have been abuses of relics in the church’s past, including the sale and worship of relics. Father Rocca was quick to point out that Catholics have “reverence and veneration but not adoration” for these “visual reminders” of holy men and women.
Relics lost some of their prominence in the 1960s after the Second Vatican Council, he said, but there is a resurgence of interest.
“I think what has helped revive the veneration of relics is that we have so many contemporary kinds of saints,” he said.
That includes Blessed Damien, whose body was buried next to St. Philomena Church in Kalawao, Molokai, when he died in 1889. In 1936, the government of Belgium, his home country, requested his body be returned there. After the priest was beatified in 1995, the bones of his right hand came back to Hawaii and are now buried in his original grave site.
The foot bone that is returning to Hawaii is a tarsal bone found just below the ankle. It was unintentionally separated from the rest of the remains after a 1956 opening of Blessed Damien’s casket when his bones were catalogued and sealed in separate zinc boxes. The piece of foot bone was left out when the casket was resealed and stored in the Sacred Hearts Fathers archives in Belgium.
When Honolulu Bishop Larry Silva made a request last year for another first-class relic of Blessed Damien to be brought back to Hawaii in honor of his canonization, this box was remembered.
According to the Sacred Hearts provincial, Father Christopher Keahi, Blessed Damien’s relic was to be presented to the pope at the canonization Mass by Audrey Toguchi, the woman whose cancer cure was declared by the Vatican to be the second miracle needed to make the missionary priest a saint.
The relic will then head back to Hawaii after stops in Detroit, San Francisco and Oakland, Calif.
A first-class relic is part of the saint’s body, from bones to hair. A second-class relic is an article that was used by the saint, such as Blessed Damien’s chalice or a piece of clothing he wore. A third-class relic is something that has touched a first-class relic but wasn’t used by the saint.
For those who find a focus on the physical remains of a saint odd or even gruesome, Father Rocca points to a secular equivalent — the U.S. Constitution, preserved under glass in Washington and gazed at in awe by hundreds of people each day.
“It’s very significant because it speaks to the origins of the country and how we enjoy freedoms as Americans today,” Father Rocca said. “It’s almost as if we treat it as very sacred.”
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