HOUSTON — There was a time when churches organized regular devotions to the saints, a practice fostered by priceless relics of holy men and women that were often on display.

Today, a Houston priest, Father Carlos Martins, seeks to re-establish the veneration of relics as a pathway to spiritual renewal for modern Catholics, many of whom are ignorant of both the lives of the saints and the tumultuous Church history that made them towering religious figures in their day.

The assistant director of Houston’s Catholic Charismatic Center — one of the city’s largest churches and a primary sponsor of spiritual renewal and educational programs — Father Martins has assembled more than 150 relics, including those of the Twelve Apostles and St. Paul. Exquisite reliquaries containing fragments of hair, bone and clothing are available for exposition during the priest’s popular healing Masses scheduled throughout the Galveston-Houston Archdiocese.

An adult convert from atheism, Father Martins has personally witnessed the great power of the saints to inspire spiritual conversion and recharge the struggle for holiness. While some Catholics flock to “Sacred Relics of the Church” anticipating a “museum exhibit” or a “weird and antiquated” religious practice, they confront something unexpected and mysteriously powerful.

“My job as a presenter involves basic evangelization,” noted Father Martins, a member of the Companions of the Cross, a community approved as a society of apostolic life in 2002. “I explain that the history of devotion to relics is the history of salvation. I show them how God has acted through relics throughout the ages. Once their faith is healed, they are open to receive whatever God wants to give them, whether it’s a physical or spiritual healing. God touches them in every way.”

Among Father Martins’ most precious relics is a piece of wood believed to be one of the largest remaining fragments of the true cross. Father Martins was a seminarian at the time he found the relic — while perusing a website that showcased French liturgical antiques. Initially, a glittering chalice caught his eye, but then he noticed another distinctive item. He quickly traced its history and reviewed official documents that confirmed the Church’s judgment that it was a fragment of the cross on which Christ was crucified.

“In 1938, Bishop Rastouil of Limoges, France, offered this fragment of the true cross as a gift to a Bishop Valy of Marseilles,” explained Father Martins. “It stayed with that bishop until 1966, when it was transferred to a French monastery. When that monastery closed several years ago, much of its possessions were sold, and somehow this relic was in the midst of that stuff.”

Father Martins contacted the French antique dealer and explained that the relic should not be for sale. The priest suggested that it be donated to his Houston ministry. The dealer remained unimpressed.

But that was just the initial salvo in an extended appeal. “I sent him a link to our website. I said to him, ‘If you donate this to my ministry, I promise to ask the people to pray for you, and to arrange for 50 Masses to be said for you and your family,’” recalled Father Martins.

That seems to have convinced him.

The relics in Father Martins’ collection span the founding of the Church to the 20th century, including fragments of the Virgin Mary’s veil and Mother Teresa’s sari.

Jason Honeycutt, director of adult faith formation at Mary Queen Church in Friendswood, Texas, which draws Catholics from the nearby NASA headquarters, has attended the exposition of the relics during “standing room only” Masses and presentations. “This ministry is filling a spiritual vacuum for Catholics who missed out on the traditional devotional practices that once distinguished Catholic life,” said Honeycutt.

He said he recently read an article by Pope Benedict XVI, who said that people’s faith can’t be just intellectual but must be based on a relationship with Christ. “That’s what this ministry represents for people,” said Honeycutt. “Our college-educated parishioners attend the expositions, and some also have joined pilgrimages to Lourdes.”

Father Martins’ presentation includes an explanation of the technical aspects of documenting the relics’ authenticity, a rigorous certification that concludes with an official document confirming that the relic may be used for public veneration.

John Kovacs, a pastoral associate for adult faith formation at St. Clare of Assisi in the archdiocese, said he recently joined a group of parishioners that included engineers, astronauts and oil-industry executives to pray before the relics.

“Father Martins let people walk around and touch the reliquaries,” observed Kovacs. “It helped people literally get in touch with their faith. The witness of the saints’ lives — so many were martyrs — makes our faith more tangible. The saints offer us an example of how to live the faith.”

A chance meeting during a 1997 pilgrimage to Rome — a year after he converted to Catholicism — would lead Father Martins to his future ministry. There he met the nephew of a woman religious who filled orders and assembled reliquaries for the Vatican at the request of Catholic leaders and churches around the world.

That meeting made it possible for him to bring a number of relics back to the United States.

Those precious items became the foundation of a collection that continues to expand. Not only has the priest conducted his own search for discarded or misused relics that have survived the elements, wars and religious persecutions, Catholics who have learned of his ministry have sent additional items — not only for safe keeping, but to foster devotion to specific saints.

The collection includes a “large piece of the incorrupt heart of St. Vincent de Paul, found in a tea box, wrapped in a piece of paper. The paper stated it was hidden in the tea box to keep it safe from the French revolutionaries who ransacked and destroyed church buildings in the 1700s.”

While the focus of this ministry is the evangelization of souls, Father Martins also has come to the attention of religious orders eager to promote the canonization of their founders.

“It’s a most unusual kind of ministry, and I was impressed and touched,” said Sister Janice Soluk, the Rome-based superior general of the Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate, during a telephone interview.

Members of the Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate want to spread word of two members of the order that have already been beatified: the order’s co-foundress, Blessed Josaphata Hordashewska, who opened the first active order of women religious in the Ukrainian Church in 1892, and Blessed Tarsykia Matskiw, a 24-year-old martyr shot during the communists’ “liquidation” of the Ukrainian Church in 1919.

“Father Martins came here to receive the relics. He had heard about the two sisters, and he said he’d let us know if anyone received specific graces. I haven’t heard of anyone else doing this kind of work,” said Sister Janice.

But the superior general has noted a surge of devotion to the saints, inspired by the example of modern Catholic figures like Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa and Padre Pio.

“People are praying to them, and lots of people are receiving graces,” she said. “People realize that in our time these are people who have lived on earth who are great intercessors on our behalf.”

Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.


INFORMATION TreasuresoftheChurch.com

Mary Magdalene Relic Visits U.S.

A relic of St. Mary Magdalene, the troubled woman possessed of seven demons, has been drawing crowds in Louisiana, Georgia, New York and Washington, D.C.

A large fragment of St. Mary Magdalene’s tibia contained in a reliquary was brought to the United States by Father Thomas Michelet, a French Dominican priest, from its base in the French Diocese of Frejus-Toulon.

The purpose of the tour — which continues through Nov. 30 — is to share the holiness of the relic and to tell the story of the saint who is recorded as the first herald of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.