Catholic News Service
The human heart is a clear symbol in human language for love. To speak of giving one’s heart away, whether in pop music or in the poetry of the ages, is to speak of giving love and sharing life.
In this light I consider it noteworthy that the heart of St. Andre Bessette of Montreal, who died in 1937, ranks as one of the most valued relics of his life in 19th- and 20th-century Canada.
A new reliquary containing fragments of St. Andre’s heart was created around the time of his 2010 canonization by Pope Benedict XVI. Traveling rather far and wide, the reliquary draws attention to the saint’s faith in hopes of inspiring similar faith in others.
I first learned of the man known widely as “Brother Andre” more than 50 years ago during a visit to St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal. This is the site of his tomb, as well as the reliquary’s home today.
A college student back then, I remember feeling not only amazed, but somewhat confused upon witnessing the many crutches left behind in the oratory by people who attributed cures from crippling afflictions to the Holy Cross brother’s intercession.
He, however, attributed these cures to the intercession of St. Joseph, to whom he was devoted intensely. Ultimately, his devotion to St. Joseph and a dream of building a chapel named for the saint would lead to construction of the magnificent oratory, situated at a high point in Montreal that allows majestic views.
Brother Andre held my attention over the years, in large part due to his life’s great simplicity. But I always wondered, too, about the decision of his religious-order superiors, who long assigned him to the seemingly undemanding position of a doorkeeper.
In time I discovered that Brother Andre evoked more for me than the memory of miraculous cures. I learned of his compassion for the sick and all the time he committed to visiting them.
He became a model for me of a Christian doing the work of Christ in this world.
The fragments of St. Andre’s heart housed by the reliquary are known in the church as first-class relics because they are parts of his physical body. Second-class relics, on the other hand, might include items he wore or used, while third-class relics include objects touched to a first-class relic.
Today I would not consider a visit to Montreal complete without visiting St. Joseph’s Oratory and the tomb of St. Andre, and without setting a little time aside to consider the ministry to suffering people that flowed from the warmth of his heart.
Can the relics and memory of this saint inspire greater care and commitment to others we encounter who are experiencing illnesses of various kinds that weaken them or diminish their will to engage life fully? I suspect most people know someone like that rather well.
A visit to the tomb of a saint and the veneration of a saint’s relics are not ends in themselves. Saints “proclaim the wonderful works of Christ,” and this is why they are “honored in the church” and relics of their lives are venerated, the Second Vatican Council said in its 1963 Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (No. 111).
The council affirmed in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church that “the authentic cult of the saints consists … in the greater intensity of our love” that they inspire (No. 51).
Relics of the saints continue in the 21st century to attract vast numbers of believers. “The drawing power of a relic cannot be underestimated,” John Thavis wrote in his 2015 book “The Vatican Prophecies.”
The longtime Catholic journalist mentioned an exposition of bones of St. Therese of Lisieux, better known among Catholics as the “Little Flower,” that made its way to a number of nations in recent years, attracting astonishing crowds. “One of her relics even journeyed into outer space aboard the Discovery space shuttle,” Thavis recalled.
He noted that when relics of the 19th-century French saint visited Ireland in 2001, the exposition “drew nearly 3 million people.” The crowds included “people who came for physical or emotional healing,” he said. “But most were drawn by a vague wish to connect with someone in heaven.”
Visits to the tombs of saints call to mind the strengths and virtues that stood out forcefully in their earthly lives. But these visits may also highlight similar, but hidden, strengths of our own that are more than ready to see the light of day.
“A relic is something that a saint has left behind,” Bishop Edward K. Braxton of Belleville, Illinois, wrote in a 2015 All Saints’ Day reflection.
“We hold out the hope,” he said, “that when we pray in the presence of a relic of a saint’s body … with an open mind, an open heart and an open spirit, we are disposed for the grace of God to help us live the virtues exemplified by the faithful disciple of Christ whose body we venerate.”
Gibson served on Catholic News Service’s editorial staff for 37 years.