Father Mario Conte spoke to us about the practice of venerating the relics of saints and the worldwide devotion to Saint Anthony during his recent visit to Middlesbrough’s Saint Mary’s Cathedral…
I always explain it in a very simple way – a relic is a way of connecting with a saint. When you meet a friend along the street, you give them your hand. When you love someone you hug them, because physical connection is very important. Relics give us the chance to touch a part of a saint in a certain way and to have a kind of connection with them.
It’s like giving Saint Anthony your hand and saying thank you for what you’ve done for me. Maybe you or someone you know is going through a difficult time. You can ask him to pray for you, because the important thing is the fact that saints are intercessors. Saints don’t perform miracles – only God can do that. But they are next to God and so they can pray for God to help us.
The great theologian who is our Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said: “In allowing people to venerate the relics of saints, the Church does not forget that in the end they are just human bones, human remains. But they are bones or remains touched by the living power of God.” They have been touched by the love of God. So as you can see, love is very much involved in the story of the relics.
I have the humble task of being Saint Anthony’s travelling companion. I’m always happy when Saint Anthony meets lots of friends. If you ask them why they are here, most will simply say they have come because they want to pray to St Anthony.
Saint Anthony is a friend of mine. People feel that Anthony is not a saint on a pedestal, but is a friend. He’s almost a member of their family and very often they have received this devotion to Saint Anthony, this friendship, through their family, maybe their mother or father, grandmother of grandfather. It’s something people keep in their hearts and they feel that St Anthony is always taking care of them.
Saint Anthony was the first teacher of philosophy in the Franciscan order, appointed by Saint Francis himself. He considered Anthony very highly. We have a letter written by Saint Francis and he addresses him as, “My bishop…”
One day a young friar decided to leave the order and stole a book of psalms. It was before the printing press and all books were handwritten, so it was very important and costly and Anthony used it for teaching. The young friar knew it was valuable because it belonged to Anthony, who was already considered to be a saint.
Anthony prayed to have the Word of God back. The young friar had a terrible vision and ran back to return it. After that people started praying to Saint Anthony when they lost something. People pray when they can’t find keys or glasses, but I think the most important thing to pray for is faith, which very often we lose and we don’t even realise we have lost it.
Faith is the most important thing because when you have faith and feel the love of God, you can bear anything – even a terrible disease or the loss of a person you love. You can bear anything if you feel you have the love of God.
Father Conte, who is pictured with the relics, is one of the 52 friars who minister in the Basilica of Saint Anthony in Padua and is also editor of the Messenger of Saint Anthony monthly magazine.