In my last column, I took up the idea of devotions to saints—an idea that is troubling to some, and confusing on a basic level to, perhaps, most. As I was reflecting on our upcoming Feast of the Nativity of Jesus, I began wondering about locations—why is it that Catholics have such interest in actual places and things? We know that none of these things are necessary for our salvation, although we certainly receive graces from pilgrimage or relic devotions. Somehow, though, the places seem to matter. They certainly seemed to matter to the earliest Christians.
In fact, two of the most influential places in my life can be attributed in part to St. Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great. It was St. Helena who visited the Holy Land in the 4th Century, collected many of the holy relics, and brought them to Rome. It was she who brought the holy stairs and the manger to Rome. It was she who ordered the construction of the Basilica of the Nativity which still stands today. It was she who oversaw the construction of the first Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher. No place has been more influential in my life than the Holy Land—particularly those places where St. Helena saw fit to construct a church.
The second point of contact between my life and that of St. Helena is St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The original basilica, now completely replaced with the 16th Century treasure we have today, was constructed over the site of the tomb of St. Peter, who had been martyred in 67 A.D. during the merciless persecution of Christians perpetrated by Nero following the great fire of Rome, which had been fallaciously attributed to them. Beneath the modern Basilica, in a humble room, one can see the bones of Peter, the Rock upon whom Christ has built his Church. Millions of people come every year to St. Peter’s to see this very thing and to be close to that Prince of the Apostles.
Back to the question: why? The Holy Land and St. Peter’s Basilica are unique points of intersection between physical location and saintly devotion. Does it matter to my faith that the altar constructed in the grotto of the Basilica of the Nativity is in exactly the right place? No. Does it matter whether the bones I have seen are actually St. Peter’s? No. The funny thing about relics and pilgrimage locations is that we could really go through each one and claim that it is not important whether or not it is real or accurate. But as we do that, paradoxically, it seems like we are trampling on something very important: the historical fact of Christianity.
If we share a religion that is based on fact—on the real intervention of God in history—then this same God should have left actual historical footprints, just as you or I would. Though any one of them might not be completely accurate, some of them must be, I would think. If we cannot pinpoint with any reasonable degree of certainty historically reliable data of the reality of our faith, then are we not being asked too much? Aren’t we constantly assured that Jesus really did walk on this earth? Did he not heal real people? Did he not wear real clothes? Did he not lie in a real manger? If we cannot point to anything that gives us concrete certainty, then are we not being asked by the Church to ignore a central aspect of who we are: beings with senses who experience the world rather than simply think it?
When I give St. Peter’s tours, one of the most popular discussion topics is the “incorrupt saint.” One such saint that you can see in the basilica is Pope Innocent XI, who died in 1689, some 320 years ago. His body is still intact. You can actually see it—he is truly flesh and bone. There are other saints you can readily see in Italy as well: St. Clare of Assisi, St. Catherine of Siena, and Pope Pius X, to name just as few. These are real people who lived real lives of sanctity, and you can see their actual body—still flesh and bones after so many years. With these bodies, you can have certainty: not only are you looking at a miracle—a body that does not decay as it should—but you are looking, and praying to, one who has fought the battle well and has won victory in Jesus Christ. There is some comfort here for data-seekers.
Jesus Christ was truly born. He was born in Bethlehem in a cave, because there was no room at the inn. He was seen first by his parents, Mary and Joseph, and then he was revealed to lowly shepherds, the Shepherd seen by shepherds. He was visited by great kings of empires who brought him gifts. Did it all happen in the spot where we celebrated Mass last year? I don’t really know for certain—but I for one believe it did. I put more faith in the saints that have come before us than do some, and since the birth of Christ, that spot has been venerated as the place where God came among men, to live with them, to love them, and to save them.
I wish you all a very Merry Christmas. Enjoy celebrating Christmas—it is the feast of the reality of God, a God who became flesh to embrace man, who even today continues to embrace us.
Fr. Joshua Allen is currently the Chaplain at the Georgia Tech Catholic Center in Atlanta, GA. He was ordained in 2011 and is a priest of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. He has a License in Patristic Theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University and also teaches at Holy Spirit College.