The Incorruptible Arm of St. Francis Xavier: An Interview With Angèle Regnier
Angèle Regnier (along with her husband, André) is a co-founder of Catholic Christian Outreach, a university student movement dedicated to evangelization on Canadian postsecondary campuses. This past January, Angèle and André were part of a small team assigned by Archbishop Terrence Prendergast to accompany a first-class relic of St. Francis Xavier for a cross-Canada pilgrimage. Today, Matt Nelson catches up with Angèle to discuss the extraordinary impact of this nationwide relic tour.
This past January, Catholics across Canada were provided with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to venerate a first class relic of St. Francis Xavier, one of the greatest missionaries and evangelists since St. Paul the Apostle. How were you personally involved? And what makes this relic so special?
I was part of the small team that travelled across Canada with the relic. Our connection with the whole project is pretty interesting because pilgrimaging with relics is not even remotely close to the kind of ministry we do. CCO is a university student movement in Canada dedicated to evangelization and raising up missionary disciples. The whole concept was germinated by an inspiration of Archbishop Terrence Prendergast, SJ, Archbishop of Ottawa. He is a longtime friend of CCO and knows well that St. Francis Xavier is one our patron saints. St. Francis Xavier is our patron saint because he had his conversion thanks to the witness of his two roommates while he was a university student at the University of Paris in the late 1520s. These three roommates would all become saints and founding members of the Jesuits: St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Peter Favre along with St. Francis Xavier. They desired to do great things for God and make the name of Jesus known, exalted and loved in every nation. CCO finds so much that resonates with St. Francis Xavier’s story and heart to reach the world and fulfill the Great Commission. The idea then that Archbishop Prendergast had was that we should request permission to receive the arm of St. Francis Xavier to enflame greater missionary zeal in CCO members. He had suggested this idea a couple of times to me when we were in Rome at the Church of the Gesu together. I thought it was an impossible proposition because the relic is kept at such an elaborate altar, I just couldn’t imagine how the Jesuits would ever be able to remove it, let alone consider releasing it. Archbishop Prendergast was confident it could happen. I continued to be skeptical, but took note and planned to mention it to him in time for CCO’s thirtieth anniversary in 2018.
So on January 5, 2017 I reached out to Archbishop Prendergast and reminded him that it was CCO’s thirtieth anniversary on October 18, 2018 (less than two years away) and of his idea about the relic and with a request that he ask on our behalf, since the Jesuit Curia would likely be more inclined to listen to a Jesuit bishop than to me. The official request happened while the Archbishop was in Rome for the ad limina visit, on the Feast of St. Philip and St. James. The next few months entailed other requests from various Vatican offices as well as the Italian State. In late September the long shot came to a reality. We now had three months to put a cross-Canada pilgrimage to fifteen-plus cities together, collaborating with the Jesuits in Canada and the various dioceses.
No one we talked to seems to know if this relic has ever been to Canada. I think if it had been here, there would be some recollection of it since it is a major relic of a founding Jesuit, the patron Saint of Missions and the great apostle to the East. The rest of St. Francis Xavier’s body is kept in at the Basilica of the Bom Jesus. His body and arm were incorrupt for centuries despite having been buried in China and Malaysia before being brought to India.
The relic was brought from Rome to Toronto by a Canadian Jesuit—Fr. Michael Kolarcik, rector of the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. It was then put in the care of Archbishop Prendergast. The big public debut was at CCO’s National Rise Up Conference on December 30, 2017. This is CCO’s annual conference gathering nearly one thousand college-aged adults from over seventy-five post-secondary institutions. This year it would mark the final days of Canada’s sesquicentennial and the beginning of CCO’s thirtieth year in 2018. The pilgrimage proper began with the team of four heading to Québec City on January 2 and our final day was to be February 2 in Ottawa. We travelled from sea to sea stopping in cities where either CCO or the Jesuits had communities (with the addition of Antigonish, Nova Scotia—home of St. Francis Xavier University).
Christians have venerated the relics of the saints since the earliest centuries of Church history. Why is such veneration a good and holy thing for Christians to do and how can it assist in building up the Church? Does the veneration of holy relics have any basis in Sacred Scripture?
The veneration of relics 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 include water, wine, and bread—physical elements that take on spiritual, supernatural value and characteristics. Similarly, the relics of saints provide for an incarnational experience of God’s graces. 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.
There are analogies to this in our human experience. When we have lost a loved one, going to their places and touching their favourite things evoke reverence, affection and connection to them.
There are various levels of relics:
- Body/bones of a saint (first class)
- Objects/clothing that belonged to a saint (second class)
- Objects that have touched a first-class relic (third class)
Relics, in a tangible way, provide an opportunity for a special connection with that saint because their body matters to God and someday will be reunited with their soul.
“We do not worship, we do not adore, for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the Creator, but we venerate the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore Him whose martyrs they are.” (St. Jerome)
There is precedent for the veneration of relics in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Veneration results in an encounter with God’s healing power. We see it with the healing of a man from touching the prophet Elisha’s bones. We also see the healing from clothing that touched Jesus (the hemorrhaging woman who touched his cloak) and various healings from fabrics that had touched St. Paul.
See: 2 Kings 13:20-21, Mark 5:27-29, Acts 19:11-12.
How were Catholics impacted by this coast-to-coast relic pilgrimage?
The impact for Catholics was more than anticipated. We didn’t know how to anticipate crowds for this. We’ve never done anything like this before. We do campus ministry! Not this! Besides the fact that venerating relics seems like a very old fashioned kind of religious practice, we were concerned that the viewing of St. Francis’ forearm could be uncomfortable for people. Many local organizers were doubtful that more than a few hundred would venture to come to something like this, let alone in the harshness of Canada’s winter. The surprise to us all was that thousands came out, not hundreds. It seemed like the rule of thumb was to add a zero to those initial local estimates!
We strove to make the pilgrimage a spiritual encounter and to bring the attention to Jesus Christ. Wouldn't St. Francis Xavier have wanted it that way? We gave talks, trained greeters, and prepared materials in order to guide pilgrims to consider three particular graces related to the charisms of St. Francis Xavier: 1) a conversion of heart, 2) to pray for greater missionary zeal (and abandonment to God’s will), and 3) for healing. There were prayers and intention cards given to help pilgrims pray for one or more of these graces when approaching for veneration. The Sacrament of Reconciliation was offered as often as possible at veneration events. We saw hundreds and hundreds go to Confession, many telling us it was the first time they had gone in a very long time. Through follow-up communication with pilgrims, hundreds replied back to us telling us they had a conversion, or that their zeal for mission had increased; and we had so many people tell us about healings they received. Some pilgrims have allowed us to post their experiences on cco.ca/glory.
The impact that we saw the relic pilgrimage have on the Catholic Church, was that it brought hope. Faithful Catholics were filled with zeal and inspiration to engage in the mission, and that partly came through the graces of their personal veneration but also from the experience of seeing the huge crowds responding to this pilgrimage. Perhaps Canadians aren’t as a-spiritual as we thought they were. Perhaps the Church isn’t irrelevant to the needs of people’s hearts. Perhaps they are spiritually hungry after all.
Did the pilgrimage draw any attention from the non-Christian or secular population?
The crowds of people did not come out because of parish bulletin announcements. Nearly 80,000 Canadians came out because they heard about in the mainstream media. Over 250 news stories were published about the relic pilgrimage with a media reach to 84 million people. It hit every national and regional outlet, and the most astonishing thing of all was that the response was altogether positive. They found it intriguing and fascinating. People we encountered in airports, on planes, in hotels and restaurants stopped to talk about the relic, asking if they too could come to venerate. There certainly was a good percentage of people who came who would not likely be weekly churchgoers, but who were very attracted to this spiritual encounter. Everyone who came was respectful as they approached and departed from the relic, many lingering to pray afterwards. The most common response we heard from people after they venerated was that they felt peaceful. You could see it in their body language and by the expression on their faces.
What was your personal highlight from the St. FX relic tour?
The relic pilgrimage was a dream come true; almost too good to be true. I think a highlight for me was seeing hope buoyed for the faithful in the Church in Canada through the relic events. So many had tears in their eyes, astonished at the crowds, the reverence of the people and the impact it was all having. The patron saint of missions infused missionary hope across Canada.
Finally, what made St. Francis so effective as a missionary? What can he teach us today as missionaries in an increasingly secularized and spiritually indifferent culture?
In all simplicity, I think the key to St. Francis Xavier is his love for Jesus. He was convinced of what Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and life and that no one comes to the Father except by me” (John 14:6). He was convinced that every human heart was created and longed to know Jesus now and for eternity. His love for souls and Jesus impelled him to go further and further. I think today as missionaries we aren’t convinced that the Jesus and the message of salvation really matters in light of eternity. When we lose the urgency and primacy of the kerygma we lose our way. Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. “She exists in order to evangelize” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 14). St. Francis Xavier reminds us to be focused on Jesus, to remember that each and every person has the right to hear about him, and to surrender ourselves for his greater glory and God’s mission to the world. St. Francis Xavier would want us to pray with great abandonment as he taught us: “Lord I am here. What do you want me to do? Send me anywhere you like—even to India.” What a secularized and spiritually indifferent culture needs is counter-cultural, heroic, loving saints whose hearts are on fire with love for Christ and zeal for souls. St. Francis Xavier, pray for us.