Father Carlos Martins never expected to be a priest, or to be touring North America to promote devotion to the saints through their sacred relics.
For much of his life, he did not believe in God.
“I was raised in a very nominally Catholic family. We didn't go to church,” the 37-year-old priest told CNA on March 27.
“The Catholic school that we went to was 'Catholic' in name only.”
“By the time I became an adult, aside from being a 'practical atheist,' I became an intellectual one as well. I thought it was impossible for God to exist, given the state of the world.”
During his university years, some “very committed Catholics” made him question his atheism – leading to a profound encounter with Christ in Eucharistic adoration.
Sixteen years and one priestly ordination later, Fr. Martins helps others encounter God, through another traditional Catholic practice: the exposition and veneration of sacred relics.
He leads the Treasures of the Church ministry, which brings thousands of relics by request to locations in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Its collection includes relics of St. Maria Goretti, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Faustina Kowalska.
Fr. Martins spoke with CNA during his March 25-April 1 tour of Colorado. After a 60-minute presentation explaining the veneration of relics, attendees can spend time in prayer with a selection that includes a large piece of Christ's cross, and fabric from the Virgin Mary's veil.
As his presentation makes clear, the experience is unlike anything that most attendees have experienced before.
“I do not have a 'traveling museum,'” he explained. “What I have, is a ministry of evangelization and healing.”
Fr. Martins refers to the period of veneration, following his introduction to the practice, as the “walk with the saints.”
During this time, he promises that those with an open heart will experience God – and the supernatural reality known as the “communion of the saints” – in a new and profound way.
“People aren't just going around and viewing the multitude of relics that are there,” he explained. “They're encountering these heroes of the faith, wanting to connect with them.”
“I guarantee them that there is going to be one saint, that is present at the exhibition, that will communicate with them in a personal way … Their job is to go find 'their saint.'”
“Ever since my own conversion from atheism,” he recalled, “my interaction with the saints was always very personal. I could intuit very specific saints extending an offer of friendship to me, with an uncanny deepness and regularity.”
“That is going to happen, when you encounter the relics,” the priest said. “I guarantee people that's going to happen.”
While some non-Catholics may find the veneration of relics unusual or even strange, it is solidly rooted in scripture and the constant tradition of the Church. Saints and their relics are not worshiped, but honored in a manner that acknowledges God's work in their lives.
Through his work with Treasures of the Church, Fr. Martin has seen God's work continue through the relics of the saints – sometimes in surprising ways.
“People come to a relic exposition for all kinds of different reasons,” he noted.
While some are there because of their devotion to saints, others may attend for different reasons: historical interest, an interest in “antiques,” or curiosity about a practice with which they are unfamiliar.
“They can't believe that there is a 'medieval circus act,' running around with human bones, in this day and age,” Fr. Martin joked.
In the presentation that precedes the “walk with the saints,” the priest makes a promise to all of these attendees.
“I make a public guarantee that they will encounter the living God in that exposition.”
“In the years I've been doing this, the hundreds of thousands of people that have come – I have never had anybody make a 'warranty claim,'” he said.
Instead he has heard testimonies of healing, accomplished by God's grace, through the intercession of the saints.
“I've had thousands of healing stories communicated to me: cancers gone, heart conditions, osteoporosis, you name it.”
But the “most dramatic effect” Fr. Martin sees, following the exposition of relics, is a healing within the human soul.
It is this kind of healing that the priest finds “most exciting” in his ministry. Through their encounter with the saints, those living on earth are called to remove the obstacles to receiving eternal life.
“You can go to heaven with cancer in your limb. You can go to heaven with a bad heart (condition),” Fr. Martins noted.
“But you can't go to heaven with a heart that has shut God out. You can't go to heaven with unforgiveness in your heart. You can't go to heaven by refusing to participate in the sacraments and live your Catholic identity. You just can't. ”
“If I've managed to help God penetrate the human heart, that invigorates and exhilarates me,” he said.