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Historia Ecclesiastica

Fonts of Salvation

On relics.


The veneration of relics is a part of our human nature. It reaches to the deepest part of our longing for physical connection on this earth, even though we know the vale of tears is not our final home. Grandmother’s pearls, Dad’s leather jacket—one can mention any number of treasured family heirlooms, and nearly everyone has some inclination to hold onto the belongings of a lost loved one or of a dear friend. To one unaware, these things are old, tired objects, but they take on a meaning and a history for those who know them. And the respect paid to the bodies and possessions of great men stretches back centuries. The Greeks went to the tombs of Theseus and Œdipus. Buddhist shrines house the relics of the Enlightened. Americans venerate the guitar used by Hendrix or the clothes worn by Elvis, the suit worn to the moon, a piece of the Berlin Wall. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier—let us not forget—houses the bones of the honored fallen, and forms part of perhaps the most sacralized civil liturgy in the United States. 

Holy Mother Church, in her wisdom, provides for this deep longing and elevates it. We are immortal souls, but we are also flesh and bone, and the sacramental economy of our Divine Savior permeates all created things. What is left behind (reliquia) by those we love gives us solace. And the things we hold onto tell us who we are. Let us not mistake the veneration of relics as mere sentimentalism; their veneration is, at its center, a biblical practice. The bones of the righteous and all that was theirs were means of grace even for the Jews. A dead man was hastily cast into the sepulcher of Saint Eliseus the Prophet andwhen it had touched the bones of Eliseus, the man came to life, and stood upon his feet.” The contents of the Ark, physical proof of all God had done for the Israelites, were always carried as they made their camp or marched into battle. These were not mere tokens or mementos; they carried with them the vim and holiness of the Living God.

In the New Testament, the faithful brought cloth to touch Saint Paul to take to the ailing. Saint Peter’s mere shadow cured the sick. Since the earliest days of persecution, Christians risked their own safety to recover the bones of the martyrs. The inhabitants of Smyrna, in a letter from the year 156, describe the martyrdom of the Apostolic Father Saint Polycarp: “We took up his bones, which are more valuable to us than precious stones and finer than refined gold. We laid them in a suitable place, where the Lord will permit us to gather ourselves together, as we are able, in gladness and joy, and to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom.” This tradition continues even now. The Church envisions altars to contain the relics of the saints, ideally the martyrs, in a stone. This stone is anointed with sacred chrism by the bishop who consecrates it and seals in the relics. This is one reason that, even if the Blessed Sacrament is not reserved on an altar, one should bow in reverence to the relics housed there. Relics constitute a holy inheritance, like the rest of Tradition, which we treasure, venerate, and lovingly preserve for future generations to share. 

But what of venerating relics? As with much of modern catechesis, there is much explanation of theory, and little physical praxis. Our modern attitude toward worship carries some of the pride of the Enlightenment; religion is more a thing to think than a thing to do. We would learn much from simply watching how our ancestors in the faith acted in church. Relics are a physical thing, so is our veneration of them. To venerate a relic one can bow, cross oneself, or kiss the relic or its reliquary. We kneel when a priest blesses us with a relic, since we kneel whenever Christ’s own anointed call down the power of the Most High. Bowin and even prostrations to pay reverence to relics are common in the Christian East. Genuflecting is reserved for the relics of the Passion, such as the True Cross.  

While relics are a fleshy, tangible part of our practice of the Faith, they nevertheless play an important role in the spiritual order. Saint Thomas Aquinas (who always wore a relic of Saint Agnes round his neck) reminds us that, while a soul in Heaven enjoys the beatific vision, some essential part of the whole, viz, the body, is lacking until the final judgement. When we say, “Saint Peter is in Heaven,” we really mean “The soul of Saint Peter is in Heaven.” The flipside of this truth is that while that person is present in Heaven, he is also still very truly connected to his body on Earth. Man is not a soul alone; the body is not simply the shell of the soul; it is really you. The work of the saints done in Heaven, then, is also wrought here on Earth. This connection is one well known to exorcists, who use relics in their treatment of the spiritually oppressed; relics are not simply holy souvenirs or reminders. Saint John of Damascus puts it beautifully: “Christ the Lord granted us the relics of the Saints as fonts of salvation, from which very many benefits come to us.”

Relics are officially recognized during the canonization process. After the cause for canonization is opened, the local bishop or superior may authorize the distribution of devotional materials and prayers for the intercession of the holy man or woman in question. The penultimate step in the canonization process, the declaration as Blessed, is usually accompanied by a canonical recognitio. The local ordinary (usually bishop), the postulator (leader of the cause for sainthood), and a medical team examine the body, and often move it from a crypt or cemetery to a more prominent place for veneration. During this recognitio a postulator or his delegate may take relics from the blessed’s tomb to prepare in reliquaries for distribution to churches for public veneration. Relics of the bones, skin, hair, etc., are normally called “first-class relics,” while things owned by the saint, their clothing, Rosary beads, breviaries, are called “second-class” relics. These, strictly speaking, are the only classes or kinds of relics. Cloth, however, is sometimes touched to these two classes of relics and distributed for aid in devotion; these are the so-called “third-class” relics. The faithful, too, will often touch sacramentals of their own (rosaries, medals, etc.) to the relics of the saints for their devotion. Since there are virtually no first-class relics of the Lord, the relics associated with the Passion, such as the True Cross, are considered first-class.

Presentation of relics has varied considerably through the centuries, but standard practice now is to place a relic inside a small, round (usually metal) reliquary case called a theca, which is sealed with red threads and the wax seal of the authority who prepared the relic. Next to the relic is enclosed a label, normally in Latin, indicating what the relic is. These abbreviations are a learned shorthand of their own, and can often pose difficulties to beginners. (For example, Ex Oss. S. Bernardi, E.D. means “from the bones of Saint Bernard, Doctor of the Church.”) The wax seal with its threads holds the relic in place and ensures that the relic has not been altered or removed. Sometimes age and travel can break these threads or make a seal difficult to read. Much of my work with relics includes the identification and repair of these elements.

I should note that the distribution of relics is fundamentally different from cremation and the scattering of ashes, even though they bear some superficial similarities. Cremation is a pagan practice; it was practiced by the ancients, who had no anticipation of the resurrection; the body was rarely regarded with the reverence it now garners in our day. It would be burned and even scattered; no one any longer had need or use for lifeless flesh. (For a taste of the kind of bleak outlook the ancients had on the afterlife, simply read half a dozen Roman headstones.) We, however, have hope in the resurrection, and knowledge that our bodies are temples of the living God. Again, the Damascene explains: “In the old law, whoever touched a dead person was deemed unclean, but the Saints are not to be reckoned among the dead. For from that time when He who is Life itself, and the Author of life, was reckoned among the dead, we do not call them dead who have fallen asleep in Him with the hope and faith of the resurrection.” The bodies of the baptized are sacred, to be cherished and revered with care even after the soul has departed. Only during the appropriate time in the process of canonization does the Church allow, under certain norms, that relics of holy men and women be distributed for veneration. This practice, then, of making more relics available for the cult of the saints, stands to affirm the resurrection of the dead, not deny it. The saints in Heaven are alive and at work among us, as it is written in Sirach, that their memory might be blessed, and their bones spring up out of their place. God wants to glorify His saints and He is glorified in them. When we honor the saints, we also honor Him who made them. Saint Jerome testifies to this: “We honor the relics of the martyrs, so that we may adore Him whose martyrs they are. We honor the servants, so that the honor of the servants might redound to their Lord.”

The removal of so-called “accretions” in the practice of the faith in the latter half of the last century saw a jettison of holy relics from parishes and religious communities. Horror stories are told of prominent university churches “disposing” of these now unnecessary treasures in bonfires outside the church. Hoards of relics were thrown out or sold (something never allowed) from convents during the commotion. Religious and laity with the wherewithal scooped them up for safekeeping until a better day. An American cardinal recently remarked to me that Europe especially has been “hemorrhaging relics,” a sign of the times and a true indicator of the level of catechesis in our time. Nevertheless, magisterial teaching on sacred relics has never changed; the Council of Trent offers its characteristic, refreshing clarity: “those who hold that veneration and honor is not due to the relics of the saints; are to be wholly condemned, just as the Church condemned them before.”

Despite all this, I find no cause for despair. Faithful Christians have an earnest desire to preserve the bones of the saints, they are eager to spread devotion. I trained with one of only a handful of experts who still work on preparing relics, a now almost defunct craft, and, through the generosity and interest of so many faithful, we founded the apostolate Sacra: Relics of the Saints. Sacra works with religious superiors, pastors, and postulators to return relics to places of honor, and to ensure reverential treatment. This apostolate prepares and identifies relics, as well as providing repairs, authentication, and documentation. The process is an involved one, but is not immune to daydreams of Indiana Jones in faraway oratories saving relics from the hands of the godless. The work requires a (rather niche) combination of relic knowledge, Latin, paleography, artifact restoration, Church history, and heraldry. There is no school for it, and most of its traditions and conventions are passed down orally. Part of the goal of Sacra is to make some more general information about relics more readily available and put parishes, clergy, and layfolk into contact with our experts.

I remember once, in a dimly lit chapel where monks chant their office, approaching a relic of Saint John of Damascus beneath the icons he so ferociously defended. Censer bells clinked and the gold leaf faces of the saints looked soberly down on the wax candles that illuminated them. Behind a veil of incense sat a folded parchment in a brass reliquary with a faded wax seal. I stepped closer to the glass as the frankincense filled my nose, read San Giovanni Damasceno, and saw the coat of arms of an Italian prelate. Later, Father Abbot agreed to let me examine this mysterious sealed parchment. I had seen paquets like it before, and they are generally rare. I thought that parchment probably contained bones of Saint John of Damascus, destined to be placed in an altar stone, and therefore not placed in a more visible reliquary. After carefully documenting the seal and opening the parchment with the team at Sacra, we discovered a relic of the flesh of Saint John. It bore the seal of the bishop who had custody of the Damascene’s relics, and was carefully wrapped to preserve it. We set this precious relic into a gold reliquary, sealed it, and documented it to tell its millennium’s worth of history. It now sits, more visible and adorned, again among the icons in church for the veneration of the faithful.

This kind of authentication is a large part of our work. Documentation becomes lost, relics are borrowed (and sometimes never returned), people die, and anything with glue eventually needs repair. Our apostolate has custody of numerous relics, and an even larger library of references, resources, and contacts. It is often possible to use these to reissue documentation or evaluate a relic’s pedigree of ownership, preparation, and authenticity. Parishes, religious communities, diocesan archives, and individuals have been sending their relics for evaluation and repair for years. The work is meticulous and extraordinarily detail-focused. A small fragment of Saint Philip the Apostle is being housed in a new, more elaborate reliquary for parish veneration. A piece of Cardinal Newman’s vestments set into gold and enamel for a local shrine. These are precious treasures which cannot be lightly dealt with, and cannot be replaced. There is no such thing as more relics of a saint, so they cannot be allowed to be discarded or lost.

The recent renewed interest in relics has unfortunately also meant more forgeries. Relics are holy objects, and sale of relics is absolutely forbidden in the law of the Church. Still, eBay is replete with chicken bones and aged gauze housed behind glass and watered silk, waiting to abuse the piety of well-meaning faithful. Of course, there are some authentic relics on eBay, but it requires the utmost expertise to scout them out. Pastors and religious superiors should consult experts before taking up arms on a digital bidding crusade. Forgers can amass enormous sums as Catholics bid against one another in a fight for a very well-done fake. Recently, a purported relic of Saint Pius of Pietralcina sold for thousands, even boasting paperwork and a seal—and yet it was undoubtedly a phony. Meanwhile, an unassuming, yet doubtless authentic relic of an obscure Roman martyr being sold by an unknowing dealer was donated, after our team explained the delicate situation, for merely the price of shipping. 

The business of relics is a tricky one. While it is absolutely forbidden to sell a relic, we may take the example of Saint Louis of France, who rescued the Crown of Thorns from Muslim hands. When relics are in the hands of secular dealers or unknowing antiquarians, it is licit to make some financial contribution in order to return them to Catholic ownership. The relics acquired are always donated to parishes or religious houses associated with the saint whose relics are rescued, to faithful who will cherish them. This kind of work requires certainty about the relics’ origins and much experience and familiarity with other relics.

The study and veneration of sacred relics is much needed, especially now. It gets us out of our heads and into our bodies, and shows their place as temples of the Most High. Its link to sacred tradition necessarily connects us to our holy forebears, and gives us strength and grace to follow in the footsteps of the saints. Relics root us firmly on the earth, while fixing our eyes on Heaven.

Sean Pilcher is a Latinist and director of Sacra: Relics of the Saints.

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