Let us read this small crucifix is in the Martyrs’ Chapel at Saint Thomas’ Church, Canterbury. Christ wears an alb – the cord or cincture around his waist makes this clear. Alb, of course, means white, the colour of the baptismal garment, the colour worn by the saints in Heaven in Saint John’s Book of Revelation, the colour worn by the priest at Mass. So this is a Eucharistic Cross. Christ is shown as a priest and a king. his crown a royal one, no longer one of thorns. His hands are raised to heaven, even as they are nailed to the cross, in a gesture familiar from the Mass. his face, like his body, is serene: he looks down to us even as he offers our prayers with his sacrifice to the Father.
But there is another dimension to this particular cross. Do not be completely distracted by it if you visit our church, but beneath the crucifix is a reliquary with Relics of Saint Thomas of Canterbury.
There are two relics in the reliquary above the altar. That on the right contains a small piece of Saint Thomas’ vestment in which he was buried, and the one on the left one of the Saint’s finger bones. The bone was brought to Canterbury on 20th December 1953 by Dom Thomas Becquet, a collateral descendant of Saint Thomas and Prior of the Abbey of Chevetogne, Belgium. It is thought that these small relics were removed from Canterbury in 1220 by Cardinals from Rome who came to witness the translation of Thomas’ remains to the new shrine in the Cathedral.
So the statue of Christ can be seen as offering the martyrs’ blood to God with his own: not just Thomas but three Reformation Martyrs with local connections, Saints Thomas More, John Fisher and John Stone. Nearby is a relic from halfway across the world: a vestment worn by Saint Oscar Romero. In an exchange of gifts, this came to Canterbury for another bone of Saint Thomas sent to the Cathedral of San Salvador. The man who brought about this link between two cities with martyred Archbishops was Fr John Metcalfe, a local priest working in El Salvador. We are all one family.
On the evening of this day in 1170, Thomas, Archbishop of Canterbury was hacked to death in his Cathedral. In March 1980, Oscar, Archbishop of San Salvador was gunned down while celebrating the Eucharist.
Two big names from the recent and distant past, both remembered as saints: but what of the thousands suffering persecution and death for their faith today? Not just ‘professional Christians’ like the two archbishops but men, women and children, starved, beaten, exiled, murdered.
Let us pray for those suffering persecution and those trying to help them, including the Franciscans of the Holy Land in Syria. Let us pray, too, for a change of heart among those who are persecuting their brothers and sisters, choosing hatred and fear over love as their way of life. And let us pray that our own hearts be changed, our eyes opened to see what our part might be in this mess: cheap bananas, means low wages, means workers repressed; or cheap petrol,leading to invasion of Iraq, leading to persecution of allegedly ‘West-sympathising’ Christians.
And we can ask for the support of the martyrs as we pray:
- Holy and blissful martyr, Thomas of Canterbury: pray for us
- Blessed Oscar Romero: pray for us
- All holy martyrs: pray for us.
- Mary mother of the Church: pray for us.
The great doors of the ancient Abbey of Saint Maurice in Switzerland are modern but in keeping with what is a place of martyrdom. Here the soldiers Maurice, Victor and their companions were martyred for not obeying unjust orders. They were Roman Africans from what is now the Egypt-Sudanese border.
The doors bear the names of martyrs down the ages. On this panel we see, among others, Saint Oscar Romero, the Cistercian monks of Tibhirine in Algeria, and Bishop Pierre Claverie and his driver and handiman, Mohamed Bouchikhi. The story of the monks has been told in the film Of Gods and Men, but Pierre and Mohamed are less well-know, at least in English speaking circles. I invite you to remember them today as they were killed on August 1, 1996 – just twenty years ago.
Pierre Claverie OP was born in Algeria, though living in the French Community there, he had little contact with the Muslim majority. His Dominican vocation brought him back to the now independent land of his birth, living much closer to the ordinary people. He was appointed Bishop of Oran in 1981. He remained at his post during the upheavals of the following years, and was awaiting Algerian citizenship at the time of his death.
Intolerant Islamists set a booby trap bomb outside his home; the blood of Pierre and Mohamed was mingled together, two sons of Algeria, two brothers, two sons of Adam.
Mohamed and many other Muslims have accepted the gift of quiet presence and service offered by the Church in post-Colonial Algeria, and continue to do so and to make Christians welcome in their communities.
St Maurice is a place of Pilgrimage for Africans who gather to remember their martyrs on the nearest weekend to the feast of the Martyrs of Uganda in June.
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
December 29: Feast of Thomas Becket
The idea that a middle class kid from Cheapside can grow up to become the Archbishop of Canterbury is somehow appealing. But there is more there than meets the eye. The blood of the conquerors (not so distant past in his lifetime) flowed in Becket’s veins and, though his parents weren’t exactly rich, they were, ah, quite comfortable (thank you) and pretty well connected. Young Becket learned to ride and hawk down in Surrey (something I have always wanted to do but was never invited…), got a really decent education, and was pretty well ear-marked as a ‘mover and shaker’ by the time he hit his stride.
I remember as a kid watching the old Hal Wallace film and completely missing the point. The Archbishop (played by Richard Burton) was certainly praiseworthy, but failed to really inspire a ten year old. Henry II (played by Peter O’Toole) seemed to get all of the best lines- a favorite; ‘Don’t be tiresome, Thomas…’ (they were both after the same woman), and my favorite character by far was the boisterous young Saxon monk/patriot who, in the final climactic scene, tried to use a processional cross as a bludgeon in his attempt to save St Thomas from the murderous knights. But I had a thing for knights and castles in those days. My younger brother whiled away the hours with his plastic WW II soldiers, while I oversaw battles from the ramparts of a Styrofoam castle that my dad made for me one Christmas; the king safely on his throne, guarded by a host of lead warriors, banners always waving…
What ten year old knows much about conversion? Some, perhaps, but I wasn’t one of them.
Later, I (along with the rest of the world) witnessed another martyrdom, a different Archbishop on the far side of Thomas Becket’s world, laid his life down in a spray of bullet-riddled violence. Some things never change. In a flash (I wasn’t a kid anymore) I realized what carpe diem really meant. Thomas of Canterbury and Oscar of San Salvador had both known privilege and preferment. Both had also had their hearts broken by Divine Love so that, like Augustine before them, they could finally love in return…and do what they had always wanted to do. Each man became a champion of the poor, God’s little ones, both lovers of what was simply right. Choosing to live in the light of that day takes a lot of courage and there is always a price to be paid…or, might one say, a greater gift to be given?
Canterbury from the North. Thomas’s Shrine was at the West, (Left hand) end of the Cathedral. ESB