A relic dating back to 430 A.D. isn’t something that’s easy to acquire.
So when the Diocese of St. Augustine was loaned a first-class relic of St. Augustine of Hippo late last month, it was considered a blessing and the culmination of many years of effort.
“One of my dreams was to find a way to get the relics of Saint Augustine here for the 450th to finally say the man for whom this city is named, his relics came here,” said the Rev. Tom Willis of Cathedral Basilica.
The relic is the finger of St. Augustine of Hippo — and it’s never before left Italy where it is part of the Vatican Treasury.
Kathleen Bagg, director of communications for the diocese, has done extensive research on the relic.
“This is a first-class relic because it is an actual piece — body part — of the saint,” she said. “It’s just taken a really long time because [officials in Italy and at the Vatican] didn’t want to let go of it.”
Encased in what is known as a reliquary — a container for holy relics — it is on loan to the diocese in celebration of St. Augustine’s 450th anniversary and the founding of America’s first Catholic parish.
“It’s been almost a two-year journey for the Bishop and other priests of the diocese to make this happen for us,” said Willis, referring to the work involved to get the loan approved. “There was a lot of paperwork, there was a lot of assurance that had to be given.”
The relic will be officially welcomed during solemn vespers, open to the public tonight at 7 p.m. at the Cathedral Basilica. Immediately afterward, Willis will preside over the first opportunity for veneration of the relic.
“Relics keep us connected with the saints whom we honor — the holy men and women of ages past. By having a relic that we venerate, we’re not worshipping the relic. We’re worshipping the God who worked his grace through this person,” Willis said.
St. Augustine is key in the city of St. Augustine’s history and the founding of America’s first parish. His story is a classic tale of sinner turned saint.
“He recognized that all of the material things — all of the things of this world and this life that he was going after — were not fulfilling to him and it wasn’t until he turned his life over to God that he found that fulfillment,” Willis said. “That message is very, very important in our world today.”
Florida historian Michael Gannon considers himself a longtime student of the influence of the saint.
“His life and influence as a Christian had a direct influence on the Christian church,” Gannon said. “He was the first great doctor, as they say, of the Christian church.”
The city was named for him when Pedro Menendez’s landfall came on the day of the feast of St. Augustine of Hippo.
Willis and Bishop Felipe J. Estévez of the diocese have been working toward bringing a relic to St. Augustine since Willis became the rector of the cathedral in 2008.
The relic will be available for veneration and public viewing until the end of September.
“People are going to be able to witness something that is not seen very much outside of Europe and where the bodies of saints are buried,” Willis said.