St. Jude's arm, kitsch, and cartoon saints
Early in my Catholic reporting days, someone found an unusual lamp in our office attic— its base was a man wrapped in a green robe, with a flame on his head: St. Jude, with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. It was a St. Jude lamp. I wish I had snagged it, but alas, I did not. I wonder who did, or if it's sitting in a thrift store window someplace, illuminating the night.
I thought about that lamp as I drove my oldest son and daughter to a local parish where St. Jude's relics had stopped for their first U.S. tour. We were on our way to see the bones of an apostle — an apostle! — someone who ate, drank, maybe joked with Jesus, but had definitely walked alongside the Son of God. I told the kids that when we got to the relic, we should pray an Our Father together -- maybe St. Jude was there when Jesus taught his disciples the prayer. I wondered if that was something we could even wrap our minds around.
I brought my two oldest — ages 7 and 10 — because I wanted to help them understand that Jesus is real and his incarnation is true. Maybe they would see "proof" in the bones of one of his friends, someone who loved Jesus, watched him die, saw him resurrected, and then left his home to evangelize, ultimately dying a martyr. Maybe in a moment of wavering faith years down the road, they would remember kneeling before that golden arm-shaped reliquary and remember that Jesus is real, he loves them, and he is worth living and dying for.
Adventures in Catholic parenting always go differently in my head than in reality. As I picked them up from school, I said, "Guess what we're going to do: Go see an apostle's arm!" My son actually said, "Noooooo!" My daughter said, "That will give me nightmares!" On the way, I tried to pull up a kid-friendly podcast about relics, but the first few sentences about all the bones in Rome didn't seem to ease my kids' concern so I turned it off. So I started to explain, the best I could, why the church has long used relics to help people around the world feel close to the saints and Jesus Christ. I reminded them, too, that St. Jude is the patron saint of "hopeless causes," and a reminder that nothing is impossible with God.
At the church, we waited in line to kneel next to the relics. When it was our turn, the kids pressed St. Jude keychains against the glass box surrounding the reliquary, and I did the same with my Bible. We prayed, briefly examined the bones through a window in the reliquary, and then our time of veneration was over, as we made way for the next person's turn.
We sat in the pews for a few minutes processing what we had just experienced. I reflected on "impossible causes" in my life, roadblocks to be hurtled, people to be healed.
In the car, my son noted that his keychain likeness of St. Jude looked a little silly. The style is on trend with the cartoon-likenesses of the saints designed to appeal to kids: Tiny Saints charms, Shining Light Dolls, and sweet saints books. My home is full of them. And while I love them, my job as a parent is to use these images to help my children draw close to the saints, and help them then grow out of the "cute saints," maturing to the point of prayerful reflection on a martyred man's bones.
If all my kids know of the saints are big eyes and bright colors, those saints and their witness may be left in childhood along with Cocomelon and Bluey, only to resurface in adulthood as Catholic kitsch, their own versions of the St. Jude lamp. The real men and women of history will be lost, trapped in a Peter Pan facade that never grew up.
I want my kids to know the saints were real — are real – because the reality of the saints points to the reality of Jesus. Two-thousand-year-old bones are a good start.
Maria Wiering is an OSV News senior writer.