Saint Ignatius High School

The Witnesses

Join Jim Brennan ’85 as he recounts the recent visit of Jesuit priests to Saint Ignatius High School, except these priests were not ordinary—they were relics of the North American Martyrs. Discover the beauty and significance of relics in the Catholic faith and the profound impact they had on students.
The Witnesses

This past week, several Jesuit priests traveled from Ontario to visit the campus of Saint Ignatius High School. It wasn’t an ordinary visit: they didn’t stay the night and they didn’t really speak with anyone. And, I should probably mention, they were dead. 

Jean de Brébeuf, S.J., Gabriel Lalemant, S.J., and Charles Garnier, S.J. (and their more “animated” Canadian Jesuit companions) are continuing a missionary journey through North America that Brébeuf began nearly 400 years ago. Along with five others—including the most famous of them, Isaac Jogues—these men are collectively known as the North American Martyrs (from the Greek meaning “witness”). Spending time evangelizing among the Huron people, having first learned their language and customs, they were killed in the 1640s in the areas of southern Ontario and upstate New York. Currently traveling everywhere from Gainesville, Florida to Centennial, Colorado, they made a stop at Saint Ignatius High School in Cleveland. Or at least their relics did.

Catholics have an interesting relationship with relics. A relic (from the Latin relinquo— “to leave behind, to abandon”) is either a body (or part of a body) of a saint, something that belonged to her or him (or that she or he used), or something that touched the body or tomb of that person. It was the parts of the bodies of Lalemant, Garnier, and Brébeuf who visited St. Mary of the Assumption Chapel, most notably Brébeuf’s skull.

It would be easy to look at the practice of venerating relics as an example of Catholics having a morbid preoccupation with death. We do, after all, put body parts in altars, full bodies (like St. Bernadette’s uncorrupted one) in glass caskets within shrines, and bits of bones in monstrance-like reliquaries. Like all families who have their odd cousin, the Church has our share of those who perhaps dwell more on the macabre than the mystical. Nonetheless, most of us who venerate the relics of our older siblings in the Faith find the practice to be life-giving. As such, we join the Victorians who literally made an art form out of hair clipped from their deceased loved ones to keep them—and the memories of them—close.

Early Christians celebrated the Eucharist on the tombs of their beloved dead—especially the martyrs.There was a sense of communion our forebears had with their dead and they at once took inspiration from them and retained a connection. Because love transcends death.

In the Eucharist, we recall, we are made one with Christ, but also all the angels and saints. All of us—together—participate in the Liturgy. Those whose remains are in the altar, or in glass caskets, or in monstrance-like reliquaries, are dead only in the physical sense. In reality, they are very much alive: much more so than even us, because they are enjoying the Beatific Vision of God.

Relics, then, are less a memento mori, and more a memento vitae. Less a reminder of death and more a reminder of life—the kind that endures forever.

Through the work of our Jesuit scholastic, John Stein S.J., our chapel was made ready and an atmosphere of reverence was created. Amid the organ music of Lawrence Wallace, the reflection by Father Eric Immel, S.J., and the smell of the incense burning near the remains of the Jesuit martyrs, there was a sense of peace that permeated the chapel. While solemn, it was far from morbid. 

For example, there were families there with young children learning the lesson that Christians need not fear death. Welsh Academy theology teacher extraordinaire Erin Conway brought her middle schoolers to visit their older brothers in the Faith. Undoubtedly due in large part to Conway’s preparation, the students came into the chapel reverently and, at the risk of overstating, with a sense of awe. They approached the relics prayerfully and as they knelt before the mortal remains of the Jesuits, the space of nearly 400 years seemed to evaporate. Instead of giggling and finger-pointing, the men of Welsh spent a half hour quietly contemplating who and what was before them.

And in doing so, they came to see how big our Christian family is and what Christian love looks like.

There is a certain poetic fittingness to the exposition of these relics taking place in the chapel of St. Mary of the Assumption. The Assumption, after all, is when Our Lady was taken soul and body into heavenly glory, reminding us that to be human is to be composed of both. We honor the bodies of those who have gone before us because it was through their bodies that they shared the love of Christ with others: Brébeuf’s head learned the language and customs of the Huron people, his mouth spoke the Gospel, his ears heard the confessions of the people he came to serve. He and his martyred brothers continue to stand witness to Christ’s call that “all be one.”

And the unifying power of love.

A.M.D.G. / B.V.M.H.