St. Anthony's Chapel — where Scripture is alive

At the time Pope Francis was making headlines with his three-day whirlwind pilgrimage to the Holy Land (much, much more on that inside, including two news stories, a pictorial In Focus and the editorial), I was making my own little pilgrimage to the great city of Pittsburgh for, well, mostly baseball.

The Nationals were playing the Pirates, and I got to celebrate my birthday by attending two games at that city’s beautiful ballpark. (They split the two games, by the way, with the win coming on the actual day of my birth. Probably not a coincidence.)

But I would have been remiss if I had visited Pittsburgh and not gone to at least one of the sites that was highlighted in last year’s Top 10 Catholics Cities, USA, In Focus (June 2, 2013). So on Saturday afternoon, my traveling companion and I hopped in the car and headed up Troy Hill to one of Pittsburgh’s hidden Catholic gems, St. Anthony’s Chapel, to visit the largest public collection of relics in the world — and the largest collection of relics, public or private, outside of the Vatican.

Editor's preview of this week's issue

I’m going to be honest: I have never considered myself a “relic person.” Maybe they have always seemed a little too strange or perhaps a little too real. Whatever the reason, relics typically have made me equal parts fascinated and nervous.

My trip to St. Anthony’s Chapel, though, shifted my perspective. A labor of love created from scratch by a Belgian priest, the chapel houses more than 5,000 relics, including a thorn from Jesus’ crown of thorns and a piece of St. Joseph’s cloak. When you start to think about it, that’s pretty remarkable.

But what really made an impression was the tour of the chapel by guide Stephen Sawczak. If you’re ever looking for someone to give you an introduction to relics, this is your guy. Certainly he was knowledgeable and able to point out which relics were where in the beautifully ornate chapel. But what “Steve” (as he introduced himself as) brought to the table was passion.

He talked for an hour about the mysteries contained in St. Anthony’s Chapel but, he fully admitted, could have talked for at least two more. And believe me, he could have.

“Scripture is alive here,” Steve stressed, as he pointed out relics from the early Church popes, the apostles and the saints. But only, he said — pausing for effect all the while — if you believe.

It would be doing Steve a disservice to describe his passion as anything less than evangelical zeal, and it couldn’t help but leave me feeling more in step with the Church’s communion of saints than I have in the long time.

I guess this is why we go on pilgrimage in the first place: to reconnect with the Faith in ways we might allow ourselves to at home. That certainly seemed to be the case with Pope Francis’ journey to the Holy Land, and it most certainly was for my trip to St. Anthony’s Chapel.