A place for saints

Categories: Around the Diocese

The reliquary chapel, top, at St. John’s Abbey Church was specially designed when the church was built to house the many relics in the Abbey collection. In the center is an altar built over the complete remains of the martyr, St. Peregrine, pictured below.

The reliquary chapel, top, at St. John’s Abbey Church was specially designed when the church was built to house the many relics in the Abbey collection. In the center is an altar built over the complete remains of the martyr, St. Peregrine, pictured below.


 The Visitor asked Benedictine Father Michael Kwatera of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville a few questions about All Saints’ Day, Nov. 1, and All Souls’ Day, Nov. 2.

Why do we celebrate All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day?

The solemnity of All Saints (Nov. 1) is the liturgy’s fullest expression of our belief in the communion of saints. While many individual saints have a feast day in the liturgical calendar, this solemnity celebrates God’s holy ones from all times and places — even some we have known and loved in this life. All Saints’ Day is the great celebration of the Christian family in its final triumph over sin and death. The veil between our earthly world and the heavenly world seems to part a bit, and with the eyes of faith we get some glimpse of the happiness and glory to which God calls us.

And, it was a good instinct that led Abbot Odilo and the Benedictine monks of Cluny to begin observing the following day as the commemoration of All Souls in the year 998. This observance on Nov. 2, one of the genuinely Benedictine additions to the liturgical calendar, is now called “The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed.” It is a day to prayerfully remember all those who have been part of God’s in-gathering to eternal life.

20 St.Peregrine

What’s a relic? Why do we venerate them?

One way the church has reverenced the mystery of death leading to eternal life is its practice of venerating the relics — or bodily remains — of saints. There are three classes of relics.

The first includes the body, or part of the body (usually a part of bone), of a saint. The second class is a piece of clothing worn by a saint or an article used by a saint; I have a relic of clothing worn by recently canonized St. John XXIII.

The third class refers to something that has decorated or touched a saint’s tomb. Today, people may leave their bodies to science for research. In a sense, the saints have left their bodies to the church for remembrance.

Keeping relics as a way of showing respect for our saintly heroes and heroines is much like our human desire to retain keepsakes from people who were dear and special to us.

Today, the church’s purpose in honoring the relics of the saints is not to highlight wonder-working remains (as medieval people may have done), but rather to remind us of the wonders that God worked in the saints during their earthly lives. The saints were not disembodied fairy-tale characters but flesh-and-blood people like ourselves.

To honor relics is to affirm the Christian belief that God can work spiritual good through the material creation, of which our bodies are a noble part. The church honors the relics of the saints because through their bodies, they brought the Lord’s salvation to others, just as Jesus did.

How did St. John’s get its collection of relics? Are there any particularly notable ones?

Many relics are housed at St. John’s Abbey; the exact number is unknown.

The pre-Vatican II requirement that altars were to contain remains of a saint helps explain why. Many of these relics came from monks who gathered them on their journeys throughout Europe for use in altar stones. More relics came from German abbeys after World War II. During the war, St. John’s Abbey gave substantial relief to these monasteries, which sent back relics in appreciation for the assistance. These relics represent saints of all times and places, from antiquity to the 20th century. Among them are saints with some connection to the history and apostolates of St. John’s, for example, St. Benedict (the order’s founder) and St. John the Baptist (the abbey’s patron).

One notable relic at St. John’s is the body of St. Peregrine (not the patron saint of cancer patients), a boy martyr who was tortured to death in Rome in the year 192. His body found a resting place in the Benedictine abbey church in Neustadt-am-Main. When fire destroyed the church in 1854, his relics were saved and later passed into the possession of the noble Lowenstein family in Bavaria. In 1895, Benedictine Father Gerard Spielmann, a monk of St. John’s Abbey, successfully petitioned Prince Karl-Heinz for their possession. From that year until 1928, the relics reposed at St. Anselm’s Church in the Bronx, N.Y. The relics were solemnly enshrined in the former St. John’s Abbey Church on May 6, 1928, and later placed with other relics in the room-like relic shrine in the crypt of the present Abbey/University Church. Thus this shrine becomes a kind of “St. John’s catacombs.” You are most welcome to make a pilgrimage there.


20 bone 20 St.Philippina 20 St.Peregrine 20 St. Kateri 20 StBenedict