When I was a child growing up in Provo, I remember hearing all kinds of horror stories about the “Great and Abominable” Catholic Church. It was common idea, especially since the first edition of Bruce R. McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine had identified it as such. I remember Primary and Sunday School lessons about how Catholics worship Mary, or that they pray to idols, or that they adorned their cathedrals lavishly unlike our modest meetinghouses (we never thought to compare them with our temples, for some reason. But one of the strangest thing I remember hearing about was the idea that Catholics loved relics—pieces of Jesus’ Cross, the fingernail of John the Baptist, even the foreskin of Jesus. That just seemed so crazy to me. Indeed, medieval Catholicism did have some pretty strange relics.
When I went on my mission to France, I came face to face with the horror! Only it wasn’t very horrible. In fact, the first time I went into a cathedral—Notre Dame in Paris, no less—I felt something I never expected: the spirit of God. In other cities where I served, I frequently visited into cathedrals. My favorite was Saint Julian’s cathedral in Le Mans, which was guarded out front by a prehistoric menhir and inside the head of the patron saint was kept as a relic. For centuries, pilgrims and worshipers had rendered the site sacred. Elder Palmer, who played the organ and had a similar affinity for cathedrals, and I stopped by almost every day for a few minutes, often lingering longer than we intended.
After my mission, I saw Catholicism in a new light—as a friendly cousin rather than a devilish perversion. I also began to find similarities in our traditions. The Catholic mass, I learned from an article in BYU Studies, is strikingly similar to the LDS temple ritual. From another BYU Studies article, I even discovered that we Mormons have had our own relics: After Joseph and Hyrum Smith were martyred in Carthage, Illinois, the rough coffins used to carry their bodies back to Nauvoo were fashioned into canes and given to a group of Joseph Smith’s close associates.
Historical objects have a way of making the past tangible, of linking us with our roots and our ancestors in a very physical way. My most prized possessions are things like the pocket watch that belonged to my grandfather, the Book of Mormon that belonged to my great, great grandfather, the dog tags that my father and my father-in-law wore during World War II. I find it difficult to explain how connected they make me feel to these people and my history.
Today I had a rare opportunity to hold in my hands a first edition Book of Mormon. It’s not the oldest book I’ve held, nor the rarest (I worked in a used/antiquarian bookstore in college and my father-in-law had some books from the Middle Ages that were written on velum.) But the fact that this was one of the original copies of the book that is the very foundation of the religion of my ancestors and of my heart, really moved me. It was a tangible testimony of my faith. It tied me physically for the brief moment I touched it with a sacred past that has changed my life and the life of my entire family, going generations.
But it also tied me to other faith traditions. We’re not all that different, really. We humans crave connection not just with each other, but with our past and our future. These physical relics serve in a very real way to “turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers.”