(Twin) Cities of saints

| Jonathan Liedl | November 20, 2019 | 0 Comments

iStock/Vito Palmisano

Did you remember All Saints Day earlier this November? In Italy, it’d be hard not to. Here, in this peculiarly Catholic country (case in point: the rate of Sunday Mass attendance is lower in Italy than in the U.S., but two soccer players were just suspended by an Italian national league for using the Lord’s name in vain during a game), All Saints Day is a national holiday. Schools, government services and most businesses are closed every year when the Nov. 1 solemnity rolls around.

The saints are a more salient presence in Italy than in America not only because the country is more culturally Catholic, but also because there are simply more saints here. Some of the Church’s most important holy men and women — from St. Benedict to St. Francis of Assisi, St. Catherine of Siena to St. Thomas Aquinas — lived and served here. In Rome itself, it’s hard to go more than a few blocks without coming across a church housing a significant relic of a saint, be it a body part of a Roman martyr or the tomb of a pope from more recent times.

Being able to spend time with the saints is certainly one of the greatest privileges of studying in Rome. Drawing close to their physical remains is a powerful way to ask for a share in the grace God continues to work through them. It’s also an irreplaceable reminder that real men and women lived lives of radical Christian love centuries ago in the streets of Rome that I walk today.

But as I’ve made my own little pilgrimages to venerate their relics, I can’t help but think of the places back home in Minnesota associated with these same saints. A visit to the Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone, where the virgin martyr’s skull is kept, calls to mind St. Agnes School in St. Paul, where several of my friends teach. Coming across St. John the Baptist’s head at the Church of San Silvestro in Capite is an occasion to ask his prayers for the parish named after him in Savage, where I served last January.

This connection, between the relics of the saints and their present-day Twin Cities patronages, is not in name only, but points to a unified reality. The same saint whose relics can be venerated in Rome has also been tasked, by God through his Church, with playing a special intercessory role for a particular place and people in our own archdiocese.

The existence and preservation of so many saintly relics here in Rome should be a reminder of this ongoing work of the saints in the life of the Church today. After all, someone is only named a saint because of our certainty that they’re united to God in heaven now; a relic is a sacred object and not merely someone’s bone (or tooth, or hair) only because of that fact.

But, perhaps because of the colloquial usage of the word, we can sometimes treat what the saints leave behind as mere “relics of the past”; as mementos only to what someone did or who they were, rather than as testimonies of what they are doing now — participating in God’s life in heaven, and doing everything they can to help us join them. As St. Bernard says in the Office of Readings for All Saints Day, “The saints want us to be with them,” but too often “we are indifferent.”

The saints are intensely interested in those souls whom God has placed in their spiritual care, which is what happens when a church or a school or something else is named after a saint. For instance, I have to believe that St. Paul the Apostle, now in heaven, not bound by time or space, is just as attentive to the spiritual needs of those living and praying in the Minnesota archdiocese named after and dedicated to him as he is to those who visit his relics at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside-the-Walls in Rome.

This isn’t to downplay the unique power of a pilgrimage to venerate the relics of a saint, a tradition the Church has always encouraged and holds in high regard. It’s simply to remind ourselves of this fact: just because we don’t necessarily have the major relics of these saints back in the archdiocese doesn’t mean we don’t have their attention.

The saintly names of so many of our Twin Cities churches and towns, schools and universities, aren’t just pious monikers; they’re expressions of the very real call to relationship with God and those who know him best.

Liedl is a seminarian in formation for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.

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Category: To Home From Rome