Is that really Saint John Neumann's body at the front of the church, under the altar? Is that his face, so bright and smooth?
Yes, it is his body. Not all of it, however. Some bones were set aside years ago to keep as relics. That is, these bones were reverently removed and cut into small pieces and set in very small, glass-covered containers. You can see one of these relic containers set in the wooden crosses that the priest uses to bless the congregation during the devotions to Saint John Neumann.
The smooth white face is a mask. The body is clothed with bishop's robes.
So the body is not incorrupt?
No, it is not. The bodies of some saints are incorrupt. That is, they have not begun to break down and return to the dust from which they came. Saints Francis Xavier, Bernadette Soubirous, and Vincent de Paul are a few famous saints whose bodies are incorrupt. In general, the bodies of the saints do break down, according to nature.
Why all this attention to the body of a saint? What are relics all about in the Catholic Church?
The venerating of the relics of saints is an expression of faith in the reality and the power of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. People come here with full faith that John Neumann is a saint with God in heaven. His body remains here with us. But faith marks it as claimed by the saving power of Jesus Christ the Redeemer. By the power of the Spirit of Jesus, Bishop John Neumann will rise from the dead in his body, in this body. As the Apostles Creed puts it, we believe in the resurrection of the body.
Okay, but what are the people here looking for, touching the glass enclosing the Saint's body, kissing the relic in the wooden cross? Some people even touch the relic to their head or chest, or eyes.
They are looking for--the power. Sometimes they are looking for miracles. They don't have the power to deal with evils of illness and evil. They are looking for this power. They apply it to their fear and pain.
Only God has this power! If you believe in God.
Right. This is a matter of divine power, and of faith in this power. Again, the Saint's relics bring this power within reach, to touch and kiss. It is the power that people came to Jesus for. They reached out, if only to touch him or even the hem of his robe. And they were cured.
Are people cured here? Are there miracles?
Sometimes. A few of these miracles have been seriously investigated. We hear of many others from people who come here to pray and to seek. It's impossible to say whether they are strict miracles or not. But don't say that to the people who have experienced these favors!
Can't all this get mixed up with mere superstition?
I suppose it does at times. Some people refer to superstitions as "folk belief." This folk belief is also looking for the power. It looks for it sometimes in a rabbit's foot, or some other lucky charm. It looks for the power also in rituals. Look, for instance, at the antics of some baseball players getting in and out of the batter's box. The ritual may include a sign of the cross, or have nothing to do with anything religious. On a more human and personal level we look for the power in the photo we carry in our wallet or in the locket around our neck, or in the rosary or other keepsake handed down to us by people now deceased. True religion does get mixed up with superstition. That's the way it is.
Shouldn't you be more upset by this superstition?
Why? It is an expression of something deep in human nature, which I have referred to as seeking the power. Mere sentimentality is not true feeling of any worth, is it? But don't you think it comes from the same country as the feeling that creates great music and poetry? Can you imagine anyone who is not sentimental sometimes? It is the job of real religion, of the Catholic Church, to lead people from sentimentality to a better beauty, and from superstition to real faith. Faith in God, who alone is the Holy and Powerful One.
You have to admit that there is something odd about the Catholic Church's attitude toward relics.
Maybe among other churches, yes. But even in secular American life relics have a place you may think odd. For instance, you can find locks of George Washington's hair at Valley Forge, and other places around the country. In Boston some of his hair his kept in a golden urn fashioned by Paul Revere! On his Inauguration Day President Teddy Roosevelt wore a ring that contained hair of Abraham Lincoln. Don't you think he was looking for the power?
I think I get what you're saying. In a place like this Shrine of Saint John Neumann we see religion on a popular level. Maybe it is a baptized "folk belief."
You're onto it. This place is two things. It is the Roman Catholic Parish of St. Peter the Apostle in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. No doubt about the "Roman Catholic." You see it in the official rites of the Church--Baptism, the Mass, Confession or Reconciliation. But there is something else in the air, too. And that is the feeling and devotion of popular Catholic faith. This parish church was already here when Saint John Neumann died in 1860. The Shrine of Saint John Neumann was built by the faith and prayers of the people who have been coming here to pray and seek the power. It is not a separate building, but a reality of faith and feeling.