For the past several years, St. Athanasius Church in Evanston has kept a shimmering white embroidered robe, worn by Pope John Paul II, hanging in a back room.
The fine strands of silver embroidery on the robe, which is lined with bright turquoise satin, glimmer beneath the church’s stained glass windows, and the garment seems to radiate its own light.
A parishioner donated the robe anonymously in 2011, but ever since Pope John Paul II became a saint in April, it has taken on an even more special meaning.
“Our community, they see it as a sacred object,” explains Father Hernan Cuervas. “They feel so proud to have it.”
Pope John Paul II wore the chasuble — a robe used to celebrate mass in the Catholic faith — during a pilgrimage to Poland in 1997, shortly after the country adopted a constitution establishing the nation as a democracy. The garment was handwoven by Franciscan nuns, and later displayed in a Benedictine monastery in Poland, according to Cuervas.
Ultimately, the chasuble made its way to eBay, where the parishioners who donated the garment decided to buy it. It comes with a letter of authenticity written in Polish, certifying that the pope wore the robe during his pilgrimage to Poland.
For the first few years, Cuervas said he wore the chasuble occasionally for special masses, such as Easter, Christmas and first communions.
“It’s so beautiful when you’re walking down the aisle,” he said. “We never knew [Pope John Paul II] would be a saint one day.”
The chasuble is lined with satin fabric in brilliant blue, a color that is connected with the Virgin Mary, according to Cuervas. It also has lilies decorating the stole — a long, scarf-like piece of fabric that drapes over the wearer’s shoulders — and comes with a matching cloth that a priest uses to prepare the bread and wine of communion.
Now that Pope John Paul II has become a saint, the garment is considered a relic, according to Cuervas. A relic can be either part of the body of a saint or something a saint has touched or used — like the chasuble.
“Relics are special to us as Catholics because it’s a way of honoring good people,” he said. “Some of us have the grace to happen to know them, and were witness to their faith, who they were, and what they were called to do.”
It’s a reminder, he continues “of our calling to be a saint”
Every Catholic church has relics in the altar, Cuervas explains, which are consecrated during a special ceremony. Traditionally, children learn about relics as they’re preparing for their first communion — but after that, Cuervas says, many Catholics may forget that they’re there.
“The idea of the relics there is taken for granted,” he said.
While the chasuble was on display throughout the month of April, it’s now back in storage in the sacristy, a room where the church keeps sacred objects used in services. Eventually, however, Cuervas said St. Athanasius hopes to find a way to display the robe to parishioners permanently, within the worship space.
“It’s become something very special,” he said. “We have to differentiate the space and the sacredness.”
Jim Hageman, who takes care of the items in the sacristy for St. Athanasius, says he sees the chasuble every day. Looking at the garment reminds him of the pope’s teaching, including his famous words, “do not be afraid,” spoken during his inaugural mass.
“When I look at it, I see this man who says, ‘Do not be afraid,’” Hageman said. “It increases the presence of that person, but it also increases the presence of God.”