Thursday, June 16, 2016:
Of relics and saints
When a few days ago I heard in the press that the Relic of the Arm of St George was being brought over to Malta and Gozo from the Cathedral Church (Il Duomo) dedicated to him in Ferrara in the north of Italy, I have to be honest and say that I was taken aback and at the same time I felt a sense of nostalgia.
It was in October 1999 that I paid a visit to the late Mgr Dante Balboni in his home in the Palazzo della Cancelleria, a building in the heart of Rome which houses also the Basilica di San Lorenzo in Damaso. Both buildings are to be found half way on the street that takes one from St Peter’s Basilica to Piazza Venezia. Mgr Balboni visited the islands back in 1984 for the special festivities that were held in July of that year; he is also the author of the entry about St George in the Bibliotheca Sanctorum, the Church’s official encyclopaedia of saints, and he served as librarian at the Vatican for many years. He hailed from Ferrara itself.
In 2014, another relic reputed to belong to an Arm of St George was brought over from the Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice accompanied by two warm-hearted Benedictine monks. It was the focus of devotion from many Qriema and Rabtin of Gozo and it was also taken into hospitals and private homes to be prayed with.
This time, the relic of the Arm of the same saint revered in Ferrara is being brought to commemorate the special festivities in honour of the 275th anniversary of the statue of St George at Città Pinto. Since Ħal Qormi and Victoria, Gozo share the same patron saint, the relic is being brought also to Gozo.
Coming to the point, my aim in writing this reflection is to ask whether the veneration of relics in 2016 is still a valid exercise in Christian piety. Having lived in Presbyterian Scotland for about four years and studied in the medieval town of St Andrews in Fife from whence the Scottish Reformation took its roots, I cannot help but ask what our Protestant brethren think about the cult of relics as we stand half-way into the second decade of the twenty-first century.
Our islands are also changing fast when it comes to religious views and organised religion. I believe this makes my question more complex and an answer to it more difficult. I say this because it is not only our brothers and sisters of the Protestant faith who might be hostile to such pious exercises but there are also the secular members of our society to whom we may be conveying the wrong message.
Personally, I have no problem with the veneration or relics as long as they are only a means to an end and that end is Christ worshipped most solemnly in the Mystery of the Holy Eucharist. Hailing from St George’s parish in Victoria myself I have my own devotion to the saint but it is not always the easiest of tasks to bring some of our own faithful to understand why relics are still revered. Some see it as a complete waste of time; others feel they are not convinced of their authenticity. However what I find very strange is that in the era of the internet where scholarly articles and researched studies can be accessed so easily, there is still a particular section of our people who continue to refuse what I call the “historical integrity” of some of our saints.
Therefore with the arrival in our midst of St George’s relic or any other relic whatsoever, what we need to do is not putting question the authenticity of their provenance as much as allowing these “devotional treasures” to lead us to him without whom we would neither have a St George nor would hundreds of Christians around our “civilised” world still lose their lives merely due to one simple reason; because like St George hundreds of years ago, they too profess themselves as disciples of Jesus of Nazareth.
If “all roads lead to Rome”, then all relics should lead us to the Eucharist, the food of heaven that will take us home among the angels and saints!
Fr Geoffrey George Attard