Deep in the heart of Paris, there is a Catholic Church that you could walk right past, if you weren’t paying attention. It’s on a cobblestoned road lined with shops and apartments with classic french windows that you half expect the characters of Beauty and the Beast to pop out of, yelling, “Bonjour!” and “I need six eggs!” It was only at the tip of a local that my friends and I ventured down ru de Sèvres and into the Chapel of the Priests of the Congregation of the Mission. We were told that it was the burial place of St. Vincent de Paul and not to be missed.
We were directed by the attendants to pray at his reliquary – a container designated to hold “relics” of saints. Relics are items that are connected to Saints and separated into “classes”. A 1st class relic is a part of a saint (such as a bone, nail clipping, or hair) or the instruments of Christ’s passion (such as the pillar on which He was scourged). A 2nd class relic is something owned by a saint (like a book, cup, or article of clothing) and a 3rd class relic is something that has been touched to a 1st or 2nd class relic (A fun do-it-yourself project: you can make your own 3rd class relic by touching any object to a 1st or 2nd class relic.)
This practice can seem odd, but as early as the Acts of the Apostles, we see people taking “handkerchiefs and aprons” from St. Paul and people experiencing healing from God as a result of contact (Acts 19:11-12). Plus, think of how much more meaningful items are if they’ve belonged to someone you love. Just like you keep items that belonged to a beloved friend or relative to remind you of them, the Church keeps items that belonged to those who are our role models in faith.
As I shuffled up the stairs behind the main altar, I found myself face to face with St. Vincent de Paul. Literally. Face to face. Lying in the glass reliquary was the entire body of St. Vincent de Paul. Although he died in September 27, 1660, when his body was unearthed 52 years later, it was discovered that it had not decayed. My friends and I actually jumped back in surprise—much like you do when you walk in and find someone asleep. After months of touring shrines in Europe and praying besides the graves of many saints, I felt unsure of what to do when there wasn’t a wall of marble separating me from the dust that remained in memorial.
St. Vincent de Paul is not the only saint whose body did not decay as it should have after he died. There are over 250 incorrupt bodies of known Catholic Saints and unknown incorrupt corpses have been discovered in burial grounds of religious. Science can offer no explanation; normally a body begins to decompose within hours after death. While an incorrupt body does not mean that one will be automatically canonized, it reminds us that just as God has triumphed over death, He can also interrupt the laws of nature.
Sometimes the lives of the saints can seem distant, churches can seem old and God can feel far away. However, kneeling next to St. Vincent de Paul, in the presence of the same body that served the poor and suffering with heroic holiness 342 yeas ago, it all seemed very close and very real. God was reminding me, and all us, how near He really is . . . just because He can.