Sometimes, you can’t blame people for thinking we Catholics are a little, well, strange. For instance, quite a few of us will be lining up this year to get a look at a gold statue holding a small glass container.
No. It’s not a monstrance. That’s another thing people think we’re strange for having. We’re talking about a container that holds strands of hair from a friar’s beard. Not some random friar, mind you. We’re talking about St. Maximilian Kolbe—the heroic martyr of the infamous Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz, who gave his life to save the life of a husband and father facing certain death at the hands of the Nazis.
These bits of beard are all that we have left of Maximilian, as his body suffered the same anonymous fate as the other victims of Auschwitz.
How do we even have his beard?
Before Friar Maximilian became a concentration camp prisoner, he had been a missionary. Franciscans, while out in the missionary field, often grew substantial beards. Maximilian kept his for a while after returning home but was ordered to remove it, as beards were a source of irritation to the worldview of the encroaching Nazis. Maximilian said, ““Beards provoke the enemy who rapidly is approaching our friary. Our Franciscan habits also will provoke him. I can part with my beard. I can’t sacrifice my habit.”
The friar-barber who shaved Maximilian’s beard knew whom he was shaving. Maximilian was already a friar of some note, so the barber wanted to preserve the shorn beard for posterity. Seeing what his brother friar was attenpting, Maximilan told him to burn the discarded facial hair.
Brother Barber obediently tossed the beard into the fireplace, but—and these things happen—there was no coal in the fire (wink, wink, nudge, nudge). After Maximilian left, the resourceful barber retrieved the beard. We owe him a prayer in thanks for his efforts. Without him, this year’s tour of St. Maximilian’s relics wouldn’t be happening.
But a beard on tour?
Hey, if Z.Z. Top could do it, so can we! If people tell you it’s strange, remind them about a knight of old carrying a lock of a lady’s hair into battle. Or how many people save the hair of loved ones in lockets. How girls used to go crazy for a lock of hair from someone like Elvis Presley. Tell them that Independence, Missouri is home to an entire museum dedicated to historical hair.
Going to see the remnants of Maximilian’s beard is no different than visiting the grave of a famous person (except that he was a saint and Elvis was not). It is, after all, all that we have left of him. It is our last physical connection to a man whose incredible sanctity, bravery and character remain an example of what it means to stand tall in the face of oppression.
By the way, if you’re interested in seeing St. Maximilian’s relics yourself, the tour is stopping at a number of locations up and down the east coast. You can get the full list of dates and locations here.
Fair enough. What exactly are relics to begin with?
First, let’s put the whole concept into perspective. Anybody who has a signed home-run baseball sitting on a shelf has got a “relic” in the house. That Babe Ruth bat the Yankees put down on home plate back in 2009? Relic. Get the idea?
In Catholicism, there are three kinds of relics:
First Class: Parts of a saint, such as St. Maximilian’s beard
Second Class: Something owned by a saint or used in the process of making the Saint a martyr (e.g. as instrument of torture)
Third Class: Something touched to a First or Second Class relic
First Class relics are intended to be just what they are, physical connections to heroes of our Faith that foster devotion and inspire sanctity. We do not think they are magic. Any favors we enjoy because we pray to a saint through his or her relics are the result of that saint’s personal intercession with Jesus, not because the relics or the saint have some kind of power.
Saint Jerome said it well, when he wrote,
“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.”
Any other cool relics around?
Plenty. A simple web search will tell you where you can visit famous relics. Just recently, the relics of St. Padre Pio were on display in Rome. Pope Francis enlisted Padre Pio—noted for his dedication to the sacrament of Reconciliation—to help him emphasize the importance of making and hearing confessions in this Jubilee Year of Mercy.
But you don’t really have to travel. Relics can be found just about anywhere. In fact, it’s likely that the altar of your parish church contains the relic of a saint—an ancient practice that is still encouraged today, when possible. Ask your pastor if your church has a resident saint.
Let us hear from you!
Is there a relic that has special meaning to you? Do you know what relics are in your local parish? Tell us about it in the com box below.