by Marie Elena Giossi
Local devotees of St. Anthony of Padua received a special gift this Advent – the opportunity to see and venerate relics of their beloved saint.
As part of a world tour marking the 750th anniversary of the discovery of St. Anthony’s remains by St. Bonaventure, the relics have visited England, Ireland, Australia, Canada, Mexico and several cities in the U.S. this year.
New York-area churches welcomed the relics in February and again this month by popular demand. The relics – a floating rib bone and layer of cheek – were received at three diocesan churches: Most Precious Blood, Bath Beach; Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, Forest Hills; and Regina Pacis Basilica, Bensonhurst, before returning to Padua, Italy, Dec. 17.
Father Mario Conte, O.F.M. Conv., traveling companion of the relics, served as homilist at a standing-room-only Mass with the relics at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, Dec. 12. Auxiliary Bishop Paul Sanchez, pastor, celebrated the midday liturgy, which was attended by parishioners and visitors.
Fourth through eighth graders from Our Lady Queen of Martyrs School attended with their teachers and principal, Anne Zuschlag, who was grateful to be able to bring the schoolchildren to see the relic.
“St. Anthony is known all over the world,” Father Conte told boys and girls. “He is one of the most popular saints, if not the most popular saint, in the world.”
Father Conte serves as executive editor of the Messenger of Saint Anthony magazine, which organized the world tour. It was coordinated locally by the Anthonian Association.
Millions of pilgrims visit the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua, the permanent home of the relics, he said, and they always share stories of how the patron saint of lost items and the poor has interceded for them, finding everything from a parking spot to providing miraculous healings.
A Brother in Heaven
“They consider him as a kind of brother in heaven next to God,” he said.
As if reminiscing about an old friend, he told the congregation about St. Anthony’s life as a Franciscan friar and powerful preacher – a “star of the sermon,” his quick canonization – “he was made a saint in 11 months, the shortest time in the history of the Church” and the discovery of his incorrupt vocal organs.
“Touching the relic isn’t superstitious. There are no sparks, no magic,” Father Conte said. “It is like giving your hand to St. Anthony.”
Following Mass, parishioners and visitors formed double lines down the church’s center aisle and waited to touch their hands to a golden statue of St. Anthony and glass-encased reliquary containing the cheek skin. Some pressed small statues and images to the glass, while others knelt down to say a prayer.
The second reliquary containing the rib bone, which was carried through the streets of Argentina in 2000 by Pope Francis, then-Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio, was located on the altar.
Faith, Health and Peace
Baskets by the altar collected devotees’ written petitions, which Father Conte brought back to St. Anthony’s Basilica. The most popular petitions received at the basilica, he said, are for faith, health and peace in the world.
“It was a special spiritual experience for me,” shared parishioner Theresa Civil, who thought that being able to see the saint’s bone and skin was a great reminder of his humanity.
When Farrah Connell heard St. Anthony’s relics were going to be in Forest Hills, this young woman knew she had to be there.
“He’s done so much for me that of course I was going to be here.
Needed a Miracle
Connell first introduced herself to the saint three years ago when, she says, she needed a miracle.
Someone told her to ask St. Anthony for help so she obtained a novena prayer to him and began to pray it every day.
“I was given what I needed. It was miraculous, and I’m hugely devoted to him for all of the assistance,” she said.
“To this day, I still do the novena everyday – now it’s in thanks for what he’s done for me and my family.”
Realizing that not everyone can go to Padua to offer their prayers of petition and thanksgiving, Father Francis Passenant, parish administrator, was happy that the parish had the opportunity to host the relics.
He was equally gratified to see so many people make time in their busy schedules for this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Relics are “reminders that we can rise to the lives of saints and be holy in our own lives,” he said.
Model of Holiness
He called St. Anthony a “model for us, who are trying to achieve holiness” in our own everyday lives.
“I have such faith in St. Anthony,” said parishioner Antoinette Versichelli. “My mother introduced me to him when I was a little girl. She’s 89, and we’re still praying to him.”
Unlike some who ask for small favors, Versichelli reserves her requests for the big things, like when she needed to find a way to help her ailing father spend his final days at home. She prayed to St. Anthony and believes that through his intercession, she was able to arrange home hospice care for her father just in time.
“When it comes to the important things,” she said, “he’s always been there for me.”