MANKATO — Parishioners formed two long lines down the center aisle following Mass, waiting to approach the reliquary at the front of SS. Peter and Paul Catholic Church.
One by one they approached the cross-shaped shrine, reaching out their hand to make the sign of the cross in front of it and then themselves. Some gently touched it.
The silver processional cross contained the relics of six priests martyred in Mexico in the 1920s and 1930s. Frank Cesario, district deputy for the Catholic fraternal organization the Knights of Columbus, said relics typically include small remnants of sainted people’s clothing and physical remains.
These relics are special for a variety of reasons.
For one, they’re not very old. The tradition of collecting relics of the remains of saints and martyrs goes back thousands of years in the Catholic church, and many relics are quite old, said Albert Cala, Knights of Columbus director of Hispanic growth. Also, Cala said, the collection is rare because all six men were martyred for their faith, all were Mexican, all were priests and all were Knights of Columbus.
Les Schneider of Mankato was baptized in SS. Peter and Paul, and he’s been a member his whole life. After the service, and after the crowd dwindled down, he too venerated the relics, which he described as a showing of respect. Veneration can be a bow or a sign of the cross, for example.
“We’ve had relics before, but not like this,” Schneider said.
Cala said, like praying to saints, relics can act as go-betweens between the people who pray to them and God. God performs the miracle, he said, but the relics help to pass on the message.
The six priests were killed during the period of anti-Catholic persecution in Mexico in the early 20th century. They were among 25 Mexicans executed for their faith. The men were canonized as saints by the church in 2000.
During the period of government persecution, the priests were martyred for refusing to disavow their faith. They were hanged, shot or beaten to death.
According to the organization’s website, one priest, in an ultimate act of forgiveness, placed the hanging rope around his own neck so that none of his captors would hold the title of murderer.
The relics were present at all weekend masses before being brought to another church in the Twin Cities.