Jesus tells us in the Gospel of Luke, “The very hairs on your head are numbered” (12:7).
In the case of St. Maximilian Kolbe, strands of his beard hair are first-class relics of this “martyr of charity.” There is a sense of divine irony: that the thing he discarded so as to become less visible to the world is now all that can be seen of his physical remains.
Thanks to Our Lady of the Angels Province Franciscan Friars (see tour schedule via OLAProvince.org), the reliquary created to commemorate Maximilian’s beatification will travel to multiple sites in the United States and Canada until Aug. 14, the 75th anniversary of St. Maximilian’s death.
Among the early sites to host the relics was St. Wenceslaus Church in Baltimore. Despite a blizzard that sidelined most of the Northeastern coast that week, people lined up to kiss or touch the relic on Jan. 31 after the 11:45am Mass.
It can seem almost too intimate, too forward to be so close to the remains of a saint, but venerating the saints by touching something of their bodies, or something that they touched, reminds us that we are an incarnational Church. Several visitors took a bit of time just to come near the relic, while others rushed to be near someone so near to Christ.
And Christlike Maximilian was.
St. Maximilian volunteered to take the place of a prisoner sentenced to death by starvation and solitary confinement underground. He led those condemned to this type of death in song and prayer in the days leading up to his death.
In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, we are called to contemplate God’s mercy for us. One of the easiest way to delve deeper into understanding the mind and heart of God is to learn about saints who revealed to the world the depth of their love of God via their lives. All the testimony available about St. Maximilian indicates he understood even the Nazis, who came to take him and his spiritual family away, were beloved children of God. His life was a testimony of heroic charity, the kind Christ had for all of us on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
My 11-year-old son asked why we’d driven all the way to Baltimore to look at what amounted to five strands of hair — until he learned the story of Maximilian’s martyrdom. His eyes widened, and the nature of the sacred became real in that moment.
I could have told him the story without having gone to see the relic, but it would have remained just a story, something Mom had tucked away in her head from years of living. It was a blessing to see my son as he gathered the courage to kiss the relic.
Absent these very physical reminders, be they bones or tongues or hair, saints can become bloodless statue versions of themselves in our minds.
We need the physical and visible to better understand what we cannot touch and what we cannot see.
We need these reminders of what we are called to be — nothing less than saints. They are visible, tangible, touchable signs to the world of God’s love. They are truth.
As St. Maximilian Kolbe wrote in his last publication of The Knight before being taken away by the Gestapo, “No one can alter truth. What we can do and should do is search for truth and then serve it when we have found it.”
If circumstances allow, go, take your family and touch a saint.