In western Illinois, where the roads run straight for miles and are flanked on both sides with seas of emerald green corn plants, I recently visited a small brick Catholic church like probably hundreds of others in America’s heartland.
But this church is unique. Corpus Christi in Galesburg is home to the remains of a 9- or 10-year-old Roman martyr.
That makes Corpus Christi one of a handful of Catholic churches in the United States that holds the body of a saint. And maybe the only one with an early Christian martyr.
The remains, along with a small urn of dried blood, were discovered in Rome’s catacomb of St. Cyriacus in 1838. A marble plaque identified him as “CRESCES,” or Crescent. He is thought to have been martyred during the persecution of the Emperor Diocletian in the third century. The circumstances around his death are unknown, but it is speculated that Crescent was one of the boys who would help run the Eucharist to small groups of Christians around Rome.
The Vatican gave Crescent’s remains to Blessed Antonio Rosmini, founder of the Institute of Charity. In 1887, they were entrusted to Institute of Charity Father Joseph Costa, founder of Corpus Christi in Galesburg. He made the arrangements for Crescent’s precarious journey in a thin glass case by rail across Italy, France and England, by boat across the Atlantic, and by rail from New York to Galesburg. The body arrived on Aug. 27. (According to local legend, since that day Galesburg has not been visited by a single tornado, which is a fairly remarkable record in this part of the country.)
Having lived in Rome for years, my wife and I feel a special connection to Roman martyrs, and even picked some as middle names for our children.
Reflecting on the martyrs and their joyful sacrifice is a healthy spiritual tonic for 21st-century Westerners. It takes a certain intensity and integrity of faith to be able to face brutal torture and death with a hymn of praise on one’s lips.
How about us? We sometimes complain when Sunday Mass goes longer than an hour.
For the early Christian martyrs, the Eucharist literally was the most important thing in their lives.
Denver’s Archbishop Charles J. Chaput gave a talk last month in which he cited the words of a young Roman lector named Felix before he was martyred: “The Christian exists through the Mass and the Mass in Christians! Neither can exist without the other. … We celebrated the glorious assembly.”
“This is the kind of faith that should inspire our worship,” Archbishop Chaput said. “And this is the kind of faith that our worship should inspire. Can we really say today that we’re ready to die rather than not celebrate the Mass?”
I thought of those words as I visited Crescent’s remains, and wondered how well I could answer that question.
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