Inside the chapel was a reliquary, a casket for holding sacred objects, that held some of the bones of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the cloistered French nun who died of tuberculosis in 1897 at age 24 and is considered the most popular Catholic saint of the 20th century because of her humility and charity. The three-foot-long reliquary have beentouring the world since the mid-90s, and they've drawn huge crowds everywhere they've appeared: France, Italy, Germany, Slovenia, Brazil, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Argentina. Her bones reached the United States last October, and they slowly worked their way westward, seemingly drawing ever longer lines of pilgrims in every city where they were displayed. When the U.S. tour finished in Hawaii on January 28, the relics were put on a plane headed for thePhilippines.
The enormous numbers of people--more than 1 million in America alone--who have flocked to venerate St. Thérèse's bones are part of a worldwide resurgence of interest insaintly body parts and objects that touched them--after several decades, from the 60s through the 80s, in which they were out of religious fashion. The Internet, which has facilitated a thriving auction market for them, is one reason for the relic revival. Another, more palpable reason may be that increasing numbers of people these days, both religious and secular, see a connection between relics and their desire to transcend ordinary life and find meaning in death.
For example,Pennsylvania artist Anne Wolf makes herown relics that have a largely secular significance. "They're smallsculptural objects that I call relics because they'relike pieces of imaginary culture I'm creating," says Wolf, who is also an artprofessor at IndianaUniversity of Pennsylvania. "For me, it's aboutdealing with the idea of continuity in the face ofimpermanence, sothat deathbecomes like a form of transformation instead offinality," sheexplains.
The San Francisco crowd that came to see St. Thérèse's relics was as diverse as the city's lifestyles. An African-American man with a shaved head and black leather jacket stood next to a gray-haired Caucasian nun in a navy blue habit. There were young Asian mothers with babies in strollers, hordes of teenagers, and elderly people in wheelchairs. During a Mass in the chapel, the priest, the Rev. Patrick Sugrue, who had been traveling with the relics through California and Nevada spoke of what had happened when the relics arrived at the El Carmelo Retreat House in Redlands, California, a few days before. A party tent had been erected to hold the 1,000 people who had been expected to visit therelics--but the number of pilgrims surged to 8,000 over the three-day period.
"Then I drove with the relics across the Mojave Desert to Las Vegas," he continued. "There were 2,000 people waiting at the first church, then another 5,000 venerated the relics at the next one. For me, it was an unforgettable experience."
The scene was similar when the relics of St. Thérèse arrived in Seattle after their San Francisco stop. People were packed shoulder to shoulder during the Mass, even in the aisles.
"The priest standing next to me said, 'This is like the Middle Ages,'" say psychotherapist Christie Cave, who stood in line in Seattle for a total of seven hours, first to get into the Mass and then to venerate the relics. "The church had the soaring lines of a Gothic cathedral, and the people were just cheek-and-jowl," says Cave. "The only difference from the Middle Ages was that some people got to sit down for Mass, when back then everyone would have been standing."