Precious relics

Following an ancient tradition, the deposition of relics of seven Jesuit saints
took place in the Chapel at St Ignatius of Loyola Catholic College in Auckland.


Above: The relics of the seven Jesuit saints were given to the College by Fr Pascual Cebollada SJ. As the General Postulator for the Society of Jesus in Rome, he is responsible for promoting the causes of Jesuits for beatification and canonisation. Photo: Kane Raukura. Below: The seven relics, each with a single white rose, before they were deposited into the reliquary carved into the top of the marble altar in the college chapel.

By Fr Michael Smith SJ,  
Ignatian Coordinator, St Ignatius of Loyola Catholic College, Auckland  

During the Dedication of the Chapel this week at St Ignatius of Loyola Catholic College, Bishop Stephen Lowe deposited the relics of seven Jesuit saints into a small reliquary that has been carved into the top of the marble altar. The reliquary was then sealed.   

The tradition of depositing relics into altars goes back to the persecution of Christians in Rome. As early as 125 A.D., when Christianity was still illegal in the Roman Empire, followers of Jesus met in secret in underground tombs called catacombs. There they celebrated Mass on the large stone slabs that covered the sarcophagi (stone tombs) of martyrs to show their reverence for the ultimate sacrifice they had made for Christ. In short, they used the tombs of martyrs as altars. When Emperor Constantine legalised Christianity, Mass no longer needed to be said underground. Even though saying Mass was now legal, the church did not cast off the tradition of venerating the relics of saints. Churches were often built over the tombs of martyrs. When this was not possible, a relic was placed in the altar and covered by a stone slab.  

Fr Chris Gleeson SJ (left) and Fr Eka Tanaya SJ during the Veneration Mass on 16 May. In his homily, Fr Chris cited the advice that retired NBA superstar Michael Jordan once received from his mother, who told him, “It’s not about the player in the game, but it is about the game in the player.” Photo: St Ignatius of Loyola Catholic College, Auckland.

The Second Council of Nicaea in 787 decreed that all churches were to have altars containing relics of saints. In 1563 the Council of Trent re-affirmed the practice of venerating relics and codified rules to assure their authenticity. This tradition continues today. Most altars in Catholic churches around the world contain relics of canonised saints. 

The relics of the seven Jesuit saints were given to the College by Fr Pascual Cebollada SJ, who is the General Postulator for the Society of Jesus in Rome. As General Postulator, Fr Pascual is responsible for promoting the causes of Jesuits for beatification and canonisation.  

The relics were sealed in special containers in Rome and brought to New Zealand via Spain and Australia. All but two are first-class relics, meaning that they come from the saint’s body, usually a small sliver of bone. Second-class relics are taken from one of the belongings of a saint, often a piece of fabric from the clothing worn by the saint. 

Our five first-class relics are from: 

  • Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), after whom our college is named. He was born in the Basque region of Spain.  With six companions, he founded the religious order called the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) and became its first Superior General in 1541. He wrote the Spiritual Exercises, a book of meditations and prayers, to help people deepen their relationship with God.  
  • Saint Francis Xavier (1506-1552) was one of the co-founders of the Society of Jesus with Saint Ignatius. He was a missionary to India, Japan and China and is the Patron Saint of missions in the Roman Catholic Church. 
  • Saint Alberto Hurtado (1901-1952) was a Jesuit priest from Chile who was also a lawyer, social worker and writer.  A key focus of his life was serving the poor. In 1944 he founded a public charity called Hogar de Cristo (in English “Home of Christ”). Each month his foundation serves more than 25,000 people who live in extreme poverty, in more than 500 works across Chile. 
  • Saint Edmund Campion (1540-1581) was an English priest and martyr. A graduate of Oxford University, he was an outstanding scholar and public speaker. He gave up an opportunity to serve Queen Elizabeth I and instead chose to become a Catholic priest. While conducting an underground ministry in what was then officially Anglican England, Campion was arrested by priest hunters. Convicted of high treason, he was hung, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn. 
  • Saint Roberto Bellarmino (1542-1621) was a Jesuit theologian, scholar and defender of the faith. As a Cardinal he was theological adviser to three Popes, including Pope Clement VIII, who said of him, “the Church of God had not his equal in learning.”   

We also have two second-class relics (pieces of cloth) from: 

  • Saint João (John) De Brito (1647-1693) was a Portuguese Jesuit missionary to India who was martyred in 1693. He worked to establish the Catholic Church in India in a way that was relatively free of European cultural domination. He learned the local languages, dressed in saffron robes and lived like a holy man, abstaining from meat and wine.  Brito taught the Catholic faith in concepts that made sense to the people he taught.   
  • Saint Andrezej (Andrew) Bobola (1597-1657) was a Polish Jesuit who was martyred in Lithuania during the conflict between Catholics and Orthodox that was part of the war between Polish and Russian forces in the mid-seventeenth century. Cossacks, who were opposed to the Jesuits’ forceful defence of Catholicism, butchered Bobola but could not break his faithful commitment to Christ. 

Foundation Principal Dean Wearmouth said that the relics of seven Jesuit saints serve as an important symbol for the whole community. In his own words, “They help us to understand the rich tradition of our church and how many people in their own ways have become the greater glory of God, using their own gifts and talents to enable others to grow towards God.” Photo: St Ignatius of Loyola College, Auckland.

Banner image: David McMahon

To enquire about becoming a Jesuit in Australia, contact and for more info, visit our Vocations page.