On the campus of Providence College in Rhode Island stands a bronze statue of St. Martin de Porres by the Dominican sculptor Fr. Thomas McGlynn. The statue captures the essence of the saintly Dominican cooperator brother with simplicity and realism. It is faithful to the reality of St. Martin, the embodiment of humility and piety, in every way except one: it stands at a towering 7’4”.
Saint Martin de Porres was born out of wedlock in Lima, Peru, in 1579 of a Spanish nobleman and a free black woman from Panama. His devotion, docility, and sanctity more than overcame the prejudices and poverty that his circumstances dealt him, including an early exit by his father who abandoned Martin, his mother, and his sister. Apprenticed to a barber-surgeon at age 12, he later joined the Dominicans in Lima and, as a cooperator brother, served both his religious community and the city itself in many important posts (from practical manager to spiritual director) throughout his life. Many astounding miracles were attributed to him including bilocation and miraculous cures. Yet he was surely never in danger of being thought to be seven feet tall—Paul Bunyan he was not.
Examining the lives of saints, particularly those known as “miracle workers” such as St. Martin de Porres or St. Pio of Pietrelcina (“Padre Pio”), one might be tempted to immediately dismiss the deeds attributed to them as “tall tales.” The reality, however, is that miracles do occur and are “tall” only insofar as they stretch our faith, inviting it to grow.
One of the distinctively “Catholic” signs of devotion is the keeping and veneration of relics of the saints which act as a reminder that these holy people are not simply fairy tale characters, but that they did in fact live as truly as you or I. Pieces of bone, drops of blood, or even a scrap of clothing forge direct links to these saints far better than even the most realistic statue. Beyond the corporeal connection, relics can even be associated with miracles here and now. While it is always God who is behind the miracles associated with the saints (and their relics), the very tangible reality of these holy men and women should inspire great confidence in God’s great love for us and help us to place complete faith in Him.
The saints are signs of our faith alive throughout history and active beyond the pages of the Bible. They are helps for the skeptical, who are tempted to compare the mysteries of our faith with the myths and fables which belong to every culture, including ours. Relics reveal the difference between the miracles of St. Martin de Porres and the colorful tales of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox.
If you have real trouble distinguishing the two, if your faith is truly lacking, perhaps you should take a close look at a relic in your church. Get to know something about the saint from whom it came. Perhaps even seek out someone who has himself experienced a confirmed miracle, such as Anthony Fuina of New York, Sharon Smith from Syracuse, or Jake Finkbonner from Ferndale, Washington. People seem to have no trouble believing that extraordinary things are acts of God as long as they are “bad” (earthquakes and other natural disasters, for example, or sudden tragic deaths of loved ones), yet those very same individuals are all too quick to dismiss miraculous cures or happenings as “freaks of nature” or “unexplained irregularities” without any attempt to reference God or any “higher power.”
Even if our obstinacy makes miracles more of a stumbling block to belief than a building block of faith, the saints help us by their example of real-life humility and devotion. Even if you cannot bring yourself to believe in St. Martin’s ability to miraculously appear at the bedside of sick novices and provide potent remedies for their sickness, you can try to strengthen your own faith by imitating his habit of diligent prayer, self-denial, and humility. Through such imitation of saints’ beliefs and lives of holiness, our own faith will be more easily oriented toward God, who calls us also to become saints and to enjoy eternal life with Him in heaven.
Image by Milos Simic