As part of a short season of reflections on the Eucharist, here is a paragraph on the role of the priest at Mass from Monsignor Ronald Knox’s ‘The Mass in Slow Motion, Sheed & Ward, 1948, pp xv-xvi. Photo – Missionaries of Africa.
In case we were in danger of feeling self-important about the tremendous office we hold, the tremendous business we are transacting, we reflect that the man who stands here is only a priest of the universal Church; at the moment when he consecrates, he is the particular unit in whom her prayer is being manifested. He is the particular sentry who happens to be posted at this particular spot, under orders from his Bishop. He must think of himself as an inconsiderable unit of this great army whose whole cause now, all the multitudinous needs of the Church of God, he proceeds to recommend to God.
Let us pray for all priests of the Universal Church in all her Rites and Communions, that they may be ever faithful to the tremendous business entrusted to them.
Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.
The case of Saints Jucundina and Verecunda at Folkestone illustrates why relics are looked at sideways by many of us. If we know nothing of these two women, however can we call them saints? And how is it that John the Baptist has at least three heads (my daughter Naomi having visited two of them)? Understandably, today the Church insists that it is better for an altar to be dedicated without relics than to have relics of doubtful credibility placed beneath it.
Father Knox reminded us on Monday that ‘people used to use relics rather freely in the Middle Ages’, so it was worth bringing some home from one’s pilgrimage or crusade. Louis IX of France came back to Paris with the Crown of Thorns and built the Sainte Chapelle to house it. Was it truly the Crown of Thorns? He thought so.
La Sainte Chapelle has the ‘wow’ factor to get into all the guide books, but the Crown of Thorns means more than the building – and yet, even if it was truly Christ’s Crown of Thorns – it means less than the answer to John Betjeman’s question:
And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
It matters not if the bread and wine are consecrated by a bishop in la Sainte Chapelle, or on a rickety table by a military chaplain, or in a parish church somewhere near you. God lives today in the Universal Church; that is you and me and all saints, living and dead. Relics can remind us of that but they are no substitute for the daily miracle of the Eucharist. And far less of a challenge to us as we live our lives from day to day.
Saint John the Baptist: Pray for us.
Saint Louis of France: Pray for us.
All saints, known or unknown today: Pray for us.
 Rite of Dedication of a Church and an Altar, Chapter II, 5
 John Betjeman, ‘Christmas’.
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To bury the dead is one of the corporal works of mercy. Folkestone Cemetery, MMB.
As I said yesterday, I’m not the only one a little ill at ease with the esteem shown to relics, though I see Monsignor Knox’s point about their being a link to the Church Universal in time, space and eternity. (see Monday’s post.)
Interestingly, a friend was talking to my wife and me about ‘mumbo-jumbo with bones’, referring to the ceremonies, mentioned yesterday, that took place with Thomas’s elbow; preferring what he would probably call practical Christianity, and the Church would call the corporal works of mercy. One of these, of course, is to bury the dead.
This friend, just a few months ago, had gone to a great deal of time, trouble and expense to arrange for the ashes of a deceased relative to be brought from overseas and decently interred within the family plot, surrounded by her living relatives; all in a remote part of a county remote indeed from Kent.
Bringing Thomas home to Canterbury, even for a night or two, is very much akin to that.
Saint Thomas of Canterbury: pray for us.
Saint Mildred of Minster Abbey: pray for us.
Saint Eanswythe: pray for us.
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Not long ago, a relic of Saint Thomas Becket was brought back briefly to Canterbury from Hungary, where it had helped the Church resist persecution by the Communist regime. There were many Hungarian martyrs whose names will never be known to the rest of the world. The link that Thomas’s relic represents to the European and world-wide Church, through the past 840 years, was greatly appreciated there. (Another relic was sent to El Salvador following the martyrdom of Saint Oscar Romero.)
This event set me thinking about relics, and I turned first to Monsignor Ronald Knox and his little book The Mass in Slow Motion, published by Sheed & Ward in 1948. We read from pages 14-15.
[The altar] stone has been consecrated long ago, by a bishop; and the bishop in consecrating it fills up some holes in it with – what do you think? Tiny bits of relics of the saints. People used to use relics of that kind rather freely in the Middle Ages; they used to put them into bridges, for instance, so as to be sure that the bridges held up… Even a military chaplain carries round with him an altar stone, with relics let into it, and he must never say Mass without having that stone on the soap-box or whatever it is he is using for an altar.
Now, just as he is going to begin the Mass proper, the priest rushes up to the altar, kisses it, and says, “We beseech thee, 0 Lord, by the merits of those saints whose relics are here, and of all the saints, to be indulgent towards my sins “. The saints whose relics are here – why is that so important? Why, because in the very early days, when the Christians at Rome were being persecuted, they used to meet for worship in the catacombs … There the Christians used to bury the poor mangled remains of their friends who had been killed in the persecution; and on the tombstones raised over these bodies of the martyrs the Roman bishop used to say Mass. And when the priest, saying those words, kisses the tiny relics tucked away in the altar-stone, he reminds himself, if he has any sense of history, that by that action he is putting himself in touch, so to speak, with the Universal Church that is in Communion with Rome.
- Saints of the ancient Church of Rome: pray for us.
- All saints of this place where I find myself: pray for us.
Here is a story about a long-lost altar stone which tells about the present day policy towards relics as well as the tradition of the last few centuries. Toronto Altar Stone.
Parts of this weeks’ reflections have appeared in the Independent Catholic News website. http://www.indcatholicnews.com/news.php?viewStory=30282
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Writing in the Independent Michael Glover says of a painting by Albert Irvin:
That pink cross is a far from a religious symbol as it could possibly be – unless we could be tempted into regarding the raising of an ice cream cone as a religious gesture.
Perhaps we could. Thérèse recalls her aunt giving her a paper basket of sweets,
crowned with two pretty little sugar rings, just the right size for my finger; straight away I shouted, ‘Oh great, there’ll be a ring for Céline.’ But oh dear, I took my basket by the handle, gave my other hand to Maman and off we went; after a few yards I looked at my basket and saw that my sweets were nearly all scattered in the road, like Tom Thumb’s pebbles. And … one of the precious rings had suffered the fate of all sweets … I had nothing to give Céline! … my sorrow exploded.
As a child she had grasped the idea of sharing what she had – her widow’s mite was a few sweets.
Ronald Knox was talking about the Mass to schoolgirls, and mentioned the custom of giving spiritual bouquets –
So many Masses heard … so many sacrifices for one’s intentions. It is always understood that sacrifices are unpleasant things, isn’t it? But I hope if you ever give me a spiritual bouquet, you will include a whole lot of the other sort of thing too; so many ice-creams eaten … then I shall feel you are offering the WHOLE of your lives to God.
 ‘Great Works’, Radar Magazine, 10.10.2015 p54.
 Ronald Knox, The Mass in Slow Motion, London, Sheed and Ward, 1948, pp 69 – 70.