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What is the veneration of relics?

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Monuments and memorials commemorate people, groups, or events and take shape in various types and forms. They typically consist of a structure such as an obelisk, sarcophagus, stele, arch, statue, roll of honour or stained glass window, most often to celebrate life, achievements or victory. These temporal forms are a secondary means of commemorating or remembering discourses of the past. In the broad context of commemoration, the use of relics play an important part in linking vestiges of the past with the present. A relic can be many things: an object, fragments, ruins, a memento or souvenir, or an extant custom or belief from past age. It can also be part of a deceased holy person's remains that is kept out of reverence. The veneration of relics has been ubiquitous in the history of religious traditions and "… is a longstanding practice inside and outside the Catholic Church. Within Christianity, the practice rests on the belief that God came to humanity in the flesh, namely in the physical person of Jesus of Nazareth. Important sacraments of the faith also include water, wine and bread -- physical elements that take on spiritual, supernatural value and characteristics. Similarly, the relics of saints provide for a tangible experience of God's graces. As well, Catholics believe that saints can intercede for humanity, given their proximity to God in what is commonly referred to as the "communion of saints" or the "Mystical Body of Christ." In essence, they consider relics to be important material aids to piety.

According to the Catholic faith, there are three classes of relics: First Class (body/bones of a saint); Second Class (objects/clothing that belonged to a saint); and Third Class (objects that have touched a first class relic). Within a greater study of relics, they can also be generally categorized as 'bodily relics' (equivalent to Catholic First Class relics), 'use or contact relics' that include objects that were used or associated with the person (a combination of Catholic First and Second Class relics), and 'relics of commemoration' that consist of images or other memento and items of remembrance created after their death.

Shown in the photograph is a relic that belongs to St. Francis Xavier (7 April 1506 - 3 December 1552), considered by many to be the greatest evangelizer since St. Paul. "He was a man of extraordinary courage and faith who shared the Gospel message of Jesus with thousands across southeast Asia, Goa and India," says Terrence Prendergast, SJ, Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Ottawa, Ontario. The forearm of "one of the most revered saints of all time" is in Canada, 3 January to 2 February 2018, as part of a 14-city Canadian visit and pilgrimage (Québec City, St. John’s, Halifax, Antigonish, Kingston, Toronto/Mississauga, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Regina, Calgary, Vancouver, Victoria, Montréal and Ottawa) organized by the Archdiocese of Ottawa, the Jesuits religious order and Catholic Christian Outreach, a national university student movement. The Society of Jesus (Jesuits) was founded in 1540 by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, a Basque nobleman and soldier, and six of his companions, including Saint Francis Xavier, who placed themselves at the service of the Church for wherever the need was greatest. They first came to Canada at Port Royal in Nova Scotia in 1611, founded the first parish and school in Québec in 1635 and now are present across the country.

Born in the Kingdom of Navarre in present-day Spain, Xavier is considered one of the co-founders of the Society of Jesus, the religious order better known as the Jesuits. A companion of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, he led extensive missions into Asia, mainly in the Portuguese Empire of the time, India and Japan. He was the first Christian missionary to venture into Japan and is known as the "Apostle of the Indies" and the "Apostle of Japan." He died in 1552 off the coast of China, which he had hoped to evangelize. Permanently displayed in a reliquary at the Church of the Gesù in Rome, organizers believe this is the first time the relic has been on Canadian soil. His body, which is enshrined at the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Goa, India, as well as the relic of his arm, are incorrupt -- they have not experienced natural decay since his death in 1552. When Xavier died, his body was moved back to India and his arm was removed by the Catholic church 60 years later. The rest of the body remains in Goa where it is elevated once every decade for public viewing. Organizers expect close to 100,000 people will visit the various events across the country -- the same number of people it is believed Francis baptized with his right arm and hand. The timing of this event, in the last days of 2017, coincides with the close of celebrations for Canada's 150th anniversary and mark the 30th anniversary of the Catholic Christian Outreach -- a milestone that was the main catalyst of this visit.

Francis Xavier was beatified by Pope Paul V on 25 October 1619, and was canonized by Pope Gregory XV on 12 March 1622, at the same time as Ignatius Loyala. Pius XI proclaimed him the "Patron of Catholic Missions" and St. Francis Xavier Feast Day is 3 December 1552. He is venerated in the Catholic Church, Lutheran Church, and Anglican Church.

On this day, 3 December 2021, we commemorate the 469th anniversary of the death of Saint Francis Xavier, and mark more than 410 years since the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) first came to Canada at Port Royal, Nova Scotia.

André M. Levesque

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