By Dan Russo
CEDAR RAPIDS — The spiritual solidarity that binds the faithful on earth to the souls in purgatory and heaven was palpable recently at Immaculate Conception Parish in Cedar Rapids.
Over 500 people packed into the downtown church March 23 to hear Father Carlos Martins speak about sacred relics. The priest, a member of the Companions of the Cross religious order, brought with him a traveling exhibit called “Treasures of the Church” that includes 166 relics of saints, the Virgin Mary, and even pieces of the true cross.
“The purpose of this exposition is not just to encounter the saints, but to go home as saints,” said Father Martins.
The priest gave examples of how relics have been used to evangelize and even heal people in need. He also explained to those present how certain “handcuffs” can keep people away from a deeper relationship with God, and ultimately the road to sainthood. Using the remarkable story of St. Maria Goretti, he demonstrated how important it is for Christians to forgive those who hurt them if they wish to become holy.
Goretti died at age 12 in 1902 after being stabbed to death by 20-year-old Alessandro Serenelli for refusing to allow him to rape her. On her deathbed, she forgave her killer. Six years later, by appearing in his dream in prison, she helped the man in his conversion. She was canonized in 1950.
Father Martins explained several reasons why the canonization was remarkable, not the least of which was that Goretti’s mother attended the ceremony.
“Never in the history of the church has a parent been present at the canonization of (their child),” said Martins.
After the talk, those who attended were able to view, touch and pray before the relics, including St. Maria Goretti’s. In the Catholic tradition, relics come in several forms such as parts of the deceased saint’s body (first class), items that have touched the saint (second class), or items which have been touched by a first class relic (third class). Martins explained the processes the church goes through to authenticate relics. Those in the exposition were kept inside special sealed vessels called “reliquaries.”
The relics were laid out on tables in the main church and the basement below. Over several hours, people waited in line for a chance to touch or pray before them.
“It’s sort of like a cheap way to visit Rome and the Holy Land,” said Jackie Harris, an Immaculate Conception parishioner who attended with her husband, David. “It’s a pauper’s pilgrimage.”
Harris was most moved by the opportunity to “actually have in your hand the piece of a cloak of Mary.”
Many families came together and prayed or touched rosaries and other personal items to the relics. Thomas and Elizabeth Gorsich asked for the intercession of the saints to help their family.
Beside each relic was a small card with an artistic depiction of the saint and something about their life story. Many were excited to learn about saints with whom they had personal connections, like Bonny Mincy who encountered a relic of St. Agnes.
“That was my mother’s name,” she said.
More on the Treasures of the Church Exhibit is at treasuresofthechurch.com.
PHOTO: A family prays before a relic of a saint during the exhibit in Cedar Rapids March 23, 2018 and touches rosaries to it while other attendees handle others.