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Father Richard Kunst: Can ooze coming from a saint’s grave cure your ills?

I don’t make a habit of using emojis very often when I am texting, but there are two I find myself using a bit more lately: the eye roll emoji and even more the one in which the guy (or girl) has their arms up in the air and shrugging, as if to say, “I don’t get it” or “I don’t know.” 

Father Richard Kunst

If I could use emojis when writing this column, I would certainly use the arm shrug for this one, because I am going to address one of the more bizarre things in Catholic life, and I am kind of happy to say that it is not really well known, though I do not doubt the legitimacy of it. 

On Feb. 25 the church honors St. Walburga, who was a hugely popular saint in the medieval world in large part because of some crazy happening at her grave. But first a little bit about the person. Walburga lived from 710 AD to 777 AD; she was the daughter of another saint by the name of St. Richard the Pilgrim (great name). She was born in England but traveled with her brothers, who were assisting St. Boniface in his evangelizing of the pagans in Germany. There she eventually became an abbess at the Monastery of Heidenheim. Sometime after her death in 777, her relics were moved to Eichstatt, Finland, where they remain to this day. 

Now the weird part: Soon after her relics were transferred to Finland and placed in a rocky niche in the monastery, a strange oozing oil started to be excreted from her grave, and if that wasn’t weird enough, soon the ooze was said to have curative powers, that it was said to be miraculous. 

Every year, the nuns at this monastery would collect this oil and distribute it, and the crazy thing is, it still happens today. You can do a simple Google search and see images of the nuns collecting the oil. Even St. John Henry Newman, the British “Brainiac” in the 19th century, declared the oil to be a credible miracle. 

So what are we to make of this? A little closer to home for me, from time to time I am asked to bring a relic of a saint or of a saint candidate to pray with people who may be sick. And I do that! I am in a unique position to be able to use relics in prayer, and often my prayer is to ask for a miracle. But the question remains: What are we to make of this? It may seem strange and primitive to many people, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. 

Does the ooze coming from St. Walburga’s bones really cause miracles? Do body parts of other saints or clothing they wore really cause miracles? How about Lourdes water or any other unique relic associated with a saint or holy place? Are these all causes of miracles? 

The short answer is, yes. God, from time to time, does allow holy “things” to be a means in which he will perform a miracle, but this is where we have to be careful, because we Catholics can easily fall into superstition. There are times in which Catholic piety and superstition can intersect in a way that is not healthy. 

Think of the passage in the Gospels where the woman had the flow of blood for 12 years that could not be cured by any doctors. She convinced herself that all she needed to do was to touch the tassel of Jesus’ cloak, and then she would be healed. And the Gospel acknowledges that that is exactly what happened: “Jesus was conscious at once that healing power had gone out from him” (Mark 5:30). In other words, the mere association of the clothing to Jesus gave his clothing a curative power. 

We would say that something is similar with relics. Think of it this way: If you were to rub something like a butter knife or some other piece of metal against a large magnet, eventually the knife will also have magnetic properties. It will become a magnet. 

But here is the difference: Intrinsically speaking, relics like Walburga’s oil have no value. It is the association they have with the holy person that is the aid to faith. Sometimes God uses these things to help people in the faith by allowing miracles to occur due to their intervention, but in the end, it is less about the relic than it is about we ourselves. Remember how the story ended with the woman who had the hemorrhage. Although Jesus acknowledged that curative power had gone out from him because she touched the tassel on his cloak, it wasn’t the tassel that cured her, it was her faith! “He said to her, ‘Daughter, it is your faith that has cured you. Go in peace and be free of this illness’” (Mark 5:34). 

Relics are not good luck charms. They can assist us in prayer if used properly, but in the end it is our faith in God’s ability to cure that causes miracles. And if you don’t get the miracle you prayed for, it is not necessarily a sign of weak faith! This is important to note; we cannot understand why God allows some miracles to happen when others he does not. This is a mystery of God’s divine providence, but still we trust in him and have hope that it might be his will that St. Walburga’s oil or some other relic can help bring about a cure. 

St. Walburga, pray for us. 

Father Richard Kunst is pastor of St. James and St. Elizabeth in Duluth. Reach him at [email protected].