Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Of Ski-Jackets and Relics

The ski jacket of Pope John Paul II now in our hallway will soon become a relic when the pope is canonized--a near certainty, it's just a question of when. In light of that fact, it may be helpful to review what Catholics believe to be true about relics and distinguish that from what is often misunderstood.

Relics are not talismans or charms that possess some sort of magical power. That’s superstitious nonsense. Rather, they are memorials to saints—visible symbols or signs that connect us to them.

In my office is a picture of my grandfather. He is important to me because he was our family’s first educator—a professor of orthodontics and chairman of the department at the University of Tennessee. My father, following in his footsteps, became a professor of physics, whereas I became a high school teacher and later a school headmaster. Every Friday, my grandfather would take his graduate students to lunch, forging a very close professor-student relationship that was most unusual for students at that level. His picture on my desk reminds me that I do not wish to become an office bureaucrat—even though I am the headmaster, I want to know students personally. This is, in fact, one of the reasons I have always taught at least one class in the 21 years I’ve been principal, president or headmaster.

Similarly, Catholics venerate (respect) relics to remind us of what was good and noble about the saint and to inspire us to strive for those same ideals. In our case, we have a wonderful relic in the ski-jacket, reminding us that Pope John Paul II, for all of his saintliness, also enjoyed being outdoors. He loved to ski, and reportedly dressed up in disguise and went snow skiing in the Alps over 100 times while pope. He also played soccer, was an actor, a poet and an avid kayaker. He, too, would take his graduate students on outings, kayaking down rivers, and at the end of the day would set up camp, turn the kayak upside down as an altar and celebrate Mass with his students.

The ski jacket display reminds us that Pope John Paul II was a very human person, who loved life and all that was good about it—nature, having fun, enjoying the company of close friends. Yes, he was a scholar, with two PhD’s. He spoke 8 languages fluently. He was the most prolific writer in papal history, with over 15 encyclicals, and was deeply respected as a world-class theologian. But he also loved life, laughed a lot, cherished his friends and enjoyed his time away “from the office”.

May John Paul II’s example inspire us to cherish life as fully as he did.

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