Saintly relics for Penang church

loading A close-up of the relic of the late Saint Pope John Paul II received by the Church of Divine Mercy, Sungai Ara.

The Church of Divine Mercy, Penang’s youngest Catholic parish, has secured the first and only relic of the late Pope John Paul II in the country.

“What have you been waiting for?”

The question was vague and certainly not what Fr Martin Arlando was expecting when he answered a late morning call from the Bishop of Penang, Rt Rev Sebastian Francis, in August last year.

After being installed as the first parish priest of Penang’s newest Catholic church less than a year before, Fr Martin was waiting for a lot of things – both tangible and spiritual. His flock at the Church of Divine Mercy (CDM) in Sungai Ara was growing and the parish was slowly taking on its own character and identity but there were obviously areas that remained wanting.

“There were so many things I was waiting for!” Fr Martin laughs, remembering the call. “Then, he (Bishop Sebastian) hinted about the John Paul II relic the church had applied for and said he was holding it in his hand at that very moment. After he called, I couldn’t sleep that day. I wanted to go and get it as soon as possible, but the bishop was not free to see me until the next day,” he says.

The entire episode was unusual as, until that day, Fr Martin had not even known that the relic – a tiny drop of the late pontiff’s blood – had been granted to his parish. Moreover, knowing the strict procedures enforced by the Vatican, it was even more surprising that the relic had made its way halfway across the globe to his very doorstep – a shift from the norm requiring official representatives of the church applicant to collect relics in person.

Fr Martin Arlando receiving the the relic of Saint Faustina Kowalska from Sr Ignacja Bazan in Krakow, Poland.

New kid on the block

As a church, CDM was a labour of love. It had been 41 years since the last Catholic church in the state was approved and built. This new church officially opened its doors to the faithful on September 29, 2010. The 0.38ha plot of land it sits on had been donated in 1989 by a local parishioner named HR Watts, but it took years for plans to be finalised and funds to be raised for the building.

In 2013, after serving the neighbouring community for three years, CDM separated from the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit and was declared a parish in its own right with its own territorial boundary and administration. It is officially the 14th Catholic church in Penang, with nine located on the island and five on the mainland.

Like a new student in class, the young church took time to find its own place and identity within the well-established religious scene in Penang. “When I first came here, the place looked like a big bungalow and not at all like a church. So, the first thing I did was put up a cross. However, there still seemed to be a lack of spirituality. Although the church is named Divine Mercy, there was no central prayer attraction at the time,” Fr Martin says.

The Divine Mercy is based on the writings of St Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun who wrote a diary of about 600 pages recording revelations she received about God's mercy. One of the most recognisable devotions of the Divine Mercy is a portrait of Jesus with two rays of light shining from his heart – an image commissioned by St Faustina based on a 1931 vision.

As CDM is named after the Divine Mercy, Fr Martin decided to borrow a relic of St Faustina from the Church of Divine Mercy, Shah Alam (which, at that time, had the only St Faustina relic in the country) to complement the celebration of CDM’s feast day in 2013. “During the nine-day novena, they were gracious enough to lend it to us for the people here to venerate. It was very well received. So, that kickstarted our initiative to apply for a relic as well,” he says. The church also decided to apply for a relic of Pope John Paul II who canonised Faustina as a saint and established Divine Mercy Sunday on every second Sunday of the Easter season. (The late pope, who was declared a saint in April 2014, also, coincidentally or not, passed away on the Vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday in 2005.)

Fr Martin Arlando with Bishop of Penang Rt Rev Sebastian Francis at the installation of the Saint Pope John Paul II relic at the church in March.

The arrival of the saints

Extensive preparation preceded the application of the relics. Aside from official letters requesting them from both the church and bishop, a detailed background of CDM and its congregation was prepared, alongside videos and photos taken during past feast days, the activities of the parish related to the Divine Mercy and assurances that the relics would be kept according to the norms of Canon Law – a body of laws and regulations enforced by church authorities.

CDM applied for relics of both modernday saints in early March last year, but after a couple of months, there was still no news. Letters were drafted to ask whether the applications had arrived at their destinations, but something stopped Fr Martin from posting them. “For some reason, I held on to the letters for one or two weeks. And then, we got a reply from St Faustina’s congregation! I thought of just going quickly to Poland to collect it, but the parishioners wanted to come along so I had to wait for them to organise themselves,” he says.

In the meantime, things were still silent on the application for John Paul II’s relic, until Fr Martin received that phone call from Bishop Sebastian. “It seems that Nuncio (Archbishop Joseph Salvador Marino, the papal ambassador to Malaysia) had been in Rome on a trip. He was given the relic directly and upon coming back, passed it to Bishop Sebastian. All this was done before we were even notified that our application had been approved! It’s strange, but Rome sometimes works like that,” Fr Martin says good-naturedly.

The late Saint Pope John Paul II's seal on the back of the relic received by the Church of Divine Mercy.

So, against all odds, the relic of John Paul II arrived at CDM, making it the first and, to this date, only church in Malaysia to house a relic of the pope. In February this year, Fr Martin was accompanied by a group of nearly 20 parishioners to the Divine Mercy Shrine in Poland to collect the relic of St Faustina. “The nuns were a bit surprised at the large number of people that arrived but were very happy because they had never had such a big group coming to collect a relic,” Fr Martin adds. The relic, a part of an unspecified major bone of St Faustina’s body, was kept safe on Fr Martin’s person for the entire trip back to Malaysia. It arrived on March 4.

In a special ceremony on the Christian celebration of Palm Sunday later that month, both relics were installed by Bishop Sebastian into a speciallybuilt reliquarium in the church. They remain on display for veneration, with the church currently in the process of arranging extended hours when visitors can come. “All the security measures are finally up and we have built sufficient facilities, like bathrooms, to cater for visitors. The installation was covered by the press and, believe it or not, the very next day, people from places like KL and Seremban were already here. We now have pilgrims who come to the church to pray, especially for healing,” Fr Martin says.

On how the relics have impacted CDM parishioners, the parish priest says there is a deeper focus on the Divine Mercy and its devotions. “The actual presence of the saints here creates an atmosphere of prayer and, I think, of hope. It’s like having a photo of a loved one, but so much more than that. This is truly ‘bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh’ as it says in the book of Genesis. For me, personally, it’s very consoling. To be here and to feel the real presence of these saints… you can really relate to them because a part of them is really here.”

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