Today we welcome the relics of St. Anthony of Padua to the City of Chester and to this Diocese of Shrewsbury. During the visit of the relics of St. John Vianney last summer a youngster came up to me on a Manchester estate and asked without any preliminaries: “What’s going on?” It’s a question we might ask having witnessed the successive visits in recent years of the relics of St. Therese of Lisieux; of the Cure of Ars; of St. John Bosco and today St Anthony of Padua. These pilgrimages in early 21st Century Britain surely represent nothing less than the return of the Saints into the lives of the faithful and to the forefront of our Christian witness.
The Saints reveal the true face of the Church at a moment in history when the Church’s public image has too often been distorted by scandals.The Saints recall us to what the Church is for and that her ultimate goal is to bring us to Heaven. Blessed John Paul II, who will very soon be recognised amongst the canonised Saints himself, observed how it is the Saints who have always been the source of renewal amidst the most difficult moments in the Church’s story. It is at such moments that we witness the return of the Saints to remind us of the one, necessary goal of our lives. So we shouldn’t be surprised that these modern pilgrimages, profoundly prayerful and catechetical in character, have everywhere been marked by a desire for conversion and a renewed desire for holiness. This desire has been vividly seen in the sheer numbers approaching the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, and so beginning their Christian lives anew.
In Rome yesterday Pope Francis reminded us of the startling fact that the term “saint” refers to you and to me, to everyone who believes in the Lord Jesus and are incorporated in Him and in the Church through Baptism. We are to be all saints! The Second Vatican Council, whose 50th anniversary we celebrate in this Year of Faith, reminded us that without exception every Christian, in every state of life, is called to holiness (Lumen Gentium n. 40). And it is no coincidence that the years following the Council’s universal call to holiness have seen the largest number of men and women “canonised” in the history of the Church. Saints raised up in the sight of all for their heroic virtue and fidelity to God’s grace. These great Saints like St. Anthony speak to our hearts from a distant time and place, encouraging us always toward the one goal of our lives: that we reach Heaven and become the Saints we are called to be. As the Letter to the Hebrews expresses this: “with so many witnesses in a great cloud on every side of us, we too … should keep running steadily in the race we have begun” (Heb. 12: 1-2). “How beautiful it is to sustain one another in the wonderful adventure of faith,” Pope Francis reflected at the General Audience in Rome yesterday (General Audience 30th October 2013).
A spiritual bond, the Holy Father reminded us, remains between those who continue their pilgrimage on earth and those who have passed the threshold of death into eternity. “All who are baptized down here on earth,” Pope Francis said, “the souls of Purgatory and the blessed already in Paradise form one big family.” And this communion between heaven and earth is realised especially through intercessory prayer which the Pope described as “the highest form of solidarity” between us.
This, we could say in response to the youngster’s question is what is really going on with this return of the Saints: a re-awakening of the hope of holiness and a renewed awareness of solidarity, which Pope Francis describes, between the Church in Heaven and on earth. This is why the relics of Saint Anthony of Padua are travelling across Britain in pilgrimage. May this much loved Saint, who became the patron of the lost, help us by his example and prayer never to lose sight of the one goal of our lives: that you and I might be counted among all the saints. Amen.
+ Mark, Bishop of Shrewsbury
(Photos by Simon Caldwell)