The Church, it is often said, thinks and moves in centuries, not minutes.
So it is fitting that the cathedral that is the cornerstone of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles should host a saint whose legacy is nearly eight centuries in the making.
Los Angeles has changed quite a bit since Blessed Junipero Serra traveled along El Camino Real on his trek to build the California mission system. In downtown Los Angeles, a portion of El Camino Real is now part of the Hollywood Freeway — and near the Temple Street off-ramp the skyline is dominated by the linear concrete of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.
Almost a decade old, the "new" cathedral of Los Angeles provides a 58,000-square-foot nave, 85-foot-high ceilings and natural light defused through 24,000 square feet of wafer-thin Spanish alabaster. Built with state-of-the-art materials and braced to withstand an earthquake in excess of 8.0 on the Richter scale, Our Lady of the Angels is designed to be a "500"-year-old structure.
Granted, those are a lot of impressive numbers, but so is the number 750, which is the number of years that have transpired since St. Bonaventure supervised the 13th-century examination of the body of a Franciscan like Serra, St. Anthony of Padua, whose feast day is June 13.
Although Anthony had been deceased for more than 30 years at the time of the examination, St. Bonaventure and other witnesses gazed on a body that demonstrated distinct signs of incorruptibility, most notably, an intact tongue, a fitting attribute since St. Anthony’s gift for preaching was so renowned.
In honor of this milestone, the Franciscan Friars of Padua have taken two of St. Anthony’s relics on an American tour, with winter stops in New York, a spring schedule through Southern California and eventually ending in Chicago this summer.
It’s a journey that began so many centuries before as St. Anthony — born Ferdinand in Portugal in 1195 — began his religious expression as an Augustinian at an early age.
But a chance meeting with five Franciscan friars on their way to evangelize in North Africa would change his life forever. Actually, it was his subsequent encounter with the bodies of these same five Franciscans who were martyred for the faith that propelled Ferdinand toward the Franciscans, where he took the name Anthony and for several years was a contemporary of the order’s founder.
His example as a disciple of Christ earned him the shortest period of time in the history of the Church — 11 months — between death and elevation to sainthood. His gift of presenting complex truth in language easy to understand would eventually lead to his being named a doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XII.
Another pope, Blessed John Paul II, no stranger to the elevation of men and women to saint status, spoke of a special bond between St. Anthony and those who pray to him for help. "The study of St. Anthony’s life convinces us that the reason for his irresistible attraction to people everywhere must be sought in the absolute fidelity with which he proclaimed the Gospel and the courageous consistency with which he strove to embody teachings."
That simplicity, combined with his irresistible attraction, explains the long lines of devotees in grand cathedrals like the one in Los Angeles.
Conventual Franciscan Father Mario Conte is the executive director of Messenger of St. Anthony magazine in Padua, Italy, as well as being the self-described "traveling companion" of the saint: He has escorted the relics on many such pilgrimages around the world. Father Conte is never surprised by the large turnouts of the faithful, who stand in line for hours just to get a moment in front of the holy relics, to touch their rosaries to them, to offer a silent prayer and be close to one who was so close to the Divine in his life.
The attraction to the saint is undeniable, as 5 million visitors make a pilgrimage to the basilica in Padua to venerate the tongue of St. Anthony each year (see story on page B4). But to accommodate those who cannot get to Padua, where the tongue of St. Anthony never leaves, Father Conte has taken two other relics on this tour of America. The relics on display for veneration in Los Angeles included a reliquary containing skin from St. Anthony’s cheek and a smaller reliquary possessing a rib bone; it was estimated that more than 1,000 people offered prayers in less than three hours of exhibition time.
"The key to St. Anthony’s appeal is that he is always present for people as a friend," Father Conte says. He is adamant that the special graces St. Anthony has been arbitrating for all these centuries go a lot deeper than just helping people find their car keys. "He helps people who come to him because maybe they have lost a job, their children to the world or even their own faith."
Father Conte is likewise resolute in his belief that relics in general should be seen for what they are and not what some detractors accuse them of being. They are not good-luck charms or magic tokens, but, rather, as St. Jerome claimed them to be: a means by which to "… better adore him whose martyrs they are." Relics remain a physical link and holy conduit between the creature and the Creator.
In Los Angeles, under the immense nave of a most modern-looking cathedral, St. Anthony — 782 years after his death and 750 years after his relics were uncovered — timelessly continues to preach.
Robert Brennan writes
from Los Angeles.
From June 8-16, the relics will tour Chicago, Rockford, Ill., and Milwaukee. Visit StAnthonyUSA.com or call (347) 738-4306 for more information.