Human bones, especially those which belong to a person who has passed on, make me a bit uncomfortable, to be honest. To me at least, they’re a bit creepy, bizarre, and generally seem out of place. After all, shouldn't they be buried somewhere?
My sense is that I’m not exactly alone in this sentiment. So, leave it to us Catholics to make sure that our churches are littered with human bones.
There’s a Franciscan church in Rome, for instance, which is commonly known as the “Bone Church,” where, if you descend into the “crypt,” you’re greeted by nothing but bones. Real human bones all over the place: arranged in patterns, built into larger objects, or seemingly just piled on top of each other. In case you were wondering, I did not feel the need to see it for myself.
I did, however, visit a church built in honor of St. Frances of Rome for mass on her feast day. I knew that St. Frances was supposedly buried there. What I didn’t know was that her body (aka her skeleton dressed in a Dominican habit) was on display in a glass case under the altar where we’d be celebrating mass. Or that since I was the only one who showed up that day, I’d be standing next to the priest (and St. Frances) during the entire mass.
Suffice it to say I’ll never be able to get that image out of my mind, thanks to that 30 minutes of staring at it throughout a (thankfully short) mass. And while it’s not exactly a pleasant image, I am strangely grateful for it.
Because otherwise, I don’t think much about death or the general transient nature of life. In fact, I generally prefer it that way. But that doesn’t mean it’s good for me.
What is good for me is to remember that I’m not here forever, and, more importantly, that I’m actually on my way to someplace else. How, then, am I going to choose to live the time I have left in this life? Not only is that time here limited, it could be much more limited than I may prefer to expect.
Franciscan friars, the same ones who maintain the bone church, have been known to ornament their cells with a simple, solitary skull, as a not-so-subtle reminder that tempus fugit - time flees. The Knights of Columbus keep a similar tradition with their motto, Memento Mori - remember [that you must] die.
If you think that’s a bit dark, join the club. But the idea takes on a different feel when accompanied by hope, particularly the hope of the Resurrection. Since Jesus has risen from the dead, he has opened the gates of heaven to us, so that when we die, we might rise again with him, if we so choose to follow him.
But choosing to follow him can be easier said than done, of course. Which is why we have a set of human bones of our own here at Nativity.
No, we don’t have any full skeletons dressed like nuns, or eerie crypts in which to descend. Instead, thanks to a generous gift in 2008 from John and Kay Michel, we have a beautiful Heritage Room which displays relics (in this case, bone fragments contained in ornate reliquaries, pictured above right) of some of the greatest saints the world has ever known, in addition to various historical documents and artifacts, and artwork significant to our parish.
As Father Patrick has said, these saints, “Inspire and instruct us and their prayers aid us in our efforts to do God’s will, that is, to lead holy lives, indeed, to become saints.”
Do we need bone fragments in order to live a holy life? Maybe, maybe not. And they certainly aren’t meant to act as some sort of Catholic good luck charm. But, not unlike the skull in the friar’s room, these relics can certainly serve to grab our attention, and, at the very least, remind us that these saints are real men and women who have lived and died and have gone to heaven - and that we, with their help, can follow in their footsteps.