A fellow priest once shared with me his “theory” that in “choosing” names for our children, there’s some mysterious way in which the saints “pick” us and thus join themselves to us. They make themselves our spiritual patrons; that is, one who, in their wealth, provides for the poverty of another. Whether this is entirely true remains to be seen, but I’m certainly willing to accept it as inside the bounds of the sharing of spiritual goods which takes place between the members of the Church on earth and the members of the Church in Heaven.
That being said, I had the chance to spend an afternoon with my (primary) patron, St. Matthew. Though according to tradition St. Matthew brought the Gospel to Ethiopia, for over 1,000 years, his mortal remains have been enshrined in the Cathedral of Salerno, some 2-1/2 hours south of Rome (by train). To date, I’ve definitely been able to visit the tombs of some spiritual giants: St. Peter, St. Paul, Sts. Philip and James, St. Mark, St. Cecilia, St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Stephen, St. Lawrence, St. Clement of Rome, St. Lucy, St. Jerome, St. Francis and St. Clare, and St. Catherine of Siena to name a few. Furthermore, I’ve had the chance to pray at these holy sites and offer Mass on the tombs of many of these holy men and women of God. However, given this unique connection that I share with the famous tax collector from Galilee, visiting St. Matthew’s tomb was a profound moment in my spiritual life.
Having planned the day before to visit St. Matthew’s tomb, I sent an email requesting to celebrate Mass at his tomb, and much to my surprise, the response came back in the affirmative! ARE YOU KIDDING ME!!! Apparently not, and from the moment I walked into the courtyard of this ancient Church, the peace was profound! In addition to being able to celebrate Mass on top of my patron’s tomb, I had the opportunity to make a sort of afternoon of reflection. Over the course of some 2-1/2 hours, only about 10 other people made brief visits to his tomb. Essentially, it was just the two of us. Apparently, the tomb of one of the 12 Apostles and one of the 4 Evangelists is not a hot spot on a random Monday afternoon during the 4th Week of Advent! What’s even more remarkable is that in addition to this quiet time I was able to enjoy here, it was only as I was preparing to leave that a group of about 20 young people came in to make a visit to the tomb and have Mass. Should there be any confusion: let me say that I promote people making pilgrimages to the tomb of St. Matthew, but, on the other hand, it was as if he had provided for a beautiful encounter and a “private” and extended appointment.
Beautiful? Absolutely! In spite of this, a couple objections might arise. First, one might say, that he’s not exactly here, though it’s a nice pious dream. Others might object that this obsession with relics suggests some morbid fascination. While I could cite the long-standing tradition within the Church as reason enough, the “argument from authority” doesn’t do justice to this venerable practice.
First, he’s not here. Even St. Thomas Aquinas was quoted as saying shortly before his death that even should he go straight to heaven after death, he wouldn’t be in heaven because he would only be a soul in heaven; he would be lacking his body. The implication is that neither a body without a soul nor a soul without a body is a person; for one to be a human person, one must be a body united to a soul. Certainly, St. Matthew’s soul enjoys the Beatific Vision for all eternity around the throne of God and of the Lamb (see the Book of Revelation) while his mortal remains lie below that altar that you see above. Yet, as beings whose knowledge begins with physical objects, we need tangible things in order to encounter another person. During his life on earth, it was through his human body that others, our Lord included, encountered the person of Matthew the tax collector. While it’s not exactly the same, there is still a real way in which being close to his body, however decayed it may be at this moment in the history of the world, allows us a certain “human” contact with the persons of the saints, albeit a less natural one, and thus there is a real contact with him.
One, however, might find this manner of contact with another person (through their rotting flesh, even if it is buried beneath the earth) to be rather morbid. I remember bringing a piece of bone from St. Bernard of Clairvaux (on his feast day, no less!) as “show-and-tell” during one of my last visits to a grade school classroom, and by explaining that it was like carrying around a picture of a loved one, the kids LOVED it! Those are kids, you might say. Granted…on to reason #2! As one visits any number of churches in Europe, one notices the vast number of images depicting the removal of the body of Christ from the cross, most famous among them being the Pietà of Michelangelo. St. Thomas Aquinas, in his reflections on the death of Christ, concluded that the dead body of Christ was still the body of the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity. Consequently, just as that body was the instrument through which God brought about healing during Christ’s life, so it still possessed in death the capacity to heal. The dead body of Christ had the power to heal.
If that’s true (and it’s true; Thomas has a great argument you can check out here), the human body has been demonstrated to be an instrument capable of transmitting Divine power. See, for example, the miracles performed by countless saints from the earliest days of the Church all the way up to our own day. Consider as a simple example, the fact that in the Acts of the Apostles (15:5), even St. Peter’s shadow has the capacity to heal the sick! Because of their closeness with God, the saints are willing instruments, communicating God’s power to the world around them…even in death! Likewise, an episode in 2Kings13:21 recounts that a dead man was incidentally buried in the grave of the prophet Elisha, and due to contact with the bones (relics) of this great prophet, the man came back to life! The relics of the holy ones of God, even in death, have power!
It’s no mistake that in the early centuries of the Church, the early Christians risked their lives to rescue the corpses and honor the dead bodies of the martyrs just as the Blessed Mother and St. John, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus honored the dead body of our Lord. Why? Because the martyrs imitated Christ in life and in death, so if we show reverence to the dead body of the Lord (which still has Divine power), then we should reverence the dead bodies of His saints (which have a similar power, as proven above). Frankly, our instant-gratification, evidence-hungry world would have been disappointed with this little visit of mine, because even though there have been moments in history when the relics of the saints have produced visible evidence of Divine Action, there was no evident Divine Action during my visit to St. Matthew’s tomb. Was it a failure? Was it all a lie? Absolutely not, because there are some effects in this mysterious creation of ours which are neither visible nor measurable. Certainly, a patron would not miss an opportunity to provide for one in need, and certainly not a patron who is perfect in charity! In faith, I’m sure this little pilgrimage of mine was profound, and I wait with eager anticipation the flowering of some grace which I’m sure was implanted in my soul. I wait, just as the Father waited many years for the grace first given to the tax collector to flower into the radical holiness of a saintly Apostle not only for this once-notorious sinner, but for countless other persons with whom he came into contact.
As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post. He said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. – Matthew 9:9