Relics: Revering the holy ones
Nov. 1 is All Saint’s Day. This is the first in a two-part series about saint relics.
By Julie Filby
Photo by James Baca/DCR
This type of connection can be experienced with saints through veneration of their relics.
“All of us have what we could call a relic: a family heirloom or maybe a historic document,” said Thomas J. Craughwell, author of “Saints Preserved: An Encyclopedia of Relics” (Image Books 2011). “We treasure these things because it’s a link to someone we love, like our grandparents; or someone we admire, like Abraham Lincoln.
“In the case of saints, you have to boost that up several notches,” he said. “This isn’t just someone we love and admire; this is someone we revere.”
What is a relic?
A sacred relic refers to the physical remains or the personal effects of a saint. Relics are contained within an altar or in receptacles called reliquaries and displayed for public veneration at churches and chapels on feast days, All Saint’s Day and other occasions.
The faithful can pray in front of them, sometimes holding or kissing a reliquary—typically outside the celebration of Mass.
Relics are categorized into three classes.
- First class: Part of a saint’s body, such as bones, blood or hair.
- Second class: Something owned, worn or used by the saint, such as clothing.
- Third class: An object, such as a piece of cloth, which came into contact with a first- or second-class relic.
Relics include artifacts associated with Jesus such as splinters of the true cross or his burial cloth—or the Bible, such as a piece of Noah’s Ark or a gem from King David’s ring.
“We believe in the communion of saints,” said Deacon Charles Parker, director of liturgy for the archdiocese. “So venerating saints—by an article of clothing or something they touched, or a literal piece of their remains—can lead us to holiness.”
In Craughwell’s experience, some have a morbid response to first-class relics.
“I often get the ‘ew’ reaction,” he said. “A lot of that is because in the Middle Ages the desire to have a relic, say the head of John the Baptist, was so intense that local bishops or whoever had the body of the saint, would dismember the bones and send them around.”
That practice does not occur anymore.
“John Paul II’s head isn’t going to Krakow,” he said, “and his foot to Warsaw.”
The present practice is to take one or two bones that can be distributed in tiny relics, and keep the body intact as much as possible.
History of relics
For Catholics the roots of relics lie in Scripture.
“There’s a story … where a Jewish man had died and his family decided to bury him next to the prophet Elisha,” said Craughwell referring to 2 Kings 13:21.
“When they were lowering the body into the grave, it touched the bones of Elisha and came back to life.”
The New Testament shares accounts of Christians asking St. Paul to touch pieces of cloth. When the sick and possessed came into contact with these sacred cloths, they were healed (Acts 19:12).
“We’re often criticized, saying (relics are) superstitious, or non-biblical,” said Craughwell. “Oh yea, they’re biblical.”
While there have been healings reported in the presence of relics, the Church aims to keep the veneration of relics in perspective.
“If you think that a particular bone is like a rabbit’s foot, you’ve left the Catholic faith and gone right into superstition and magic,” said Craughwell. “God does work miracles through relics when he wants to, but relics have no power on their own.”
Authentication of relics
During the Middle Ages as the removal of relics from tombs increased, so did the number of abuses and forgeries.
“(There’s a saying) ‘There are enough pieces of the true cross to build a battle ship,’” Craughwell quipped.
Today relics are maintained and authenticated by the Congregation of the Discipline of the Sacraments and the Congregation of the Causes for Saints of the Roman Curia. The congregations consider formal requests for relics submitted by diocesan ordinaries, such as bishops. Acquiring relics legitimately has become difficult for private individuals.
“The Church really wants (relics) to go to a church or public chapel for veneration,” said Craughwell.
In cases where a saint’s remains are located in their diocese, the requesting ordinary sends the appeal to the ordinary that has custody. For example the relics of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton are in the United States, at the Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg, Md.
Whether procuring relics from the Roman Curia or a diocese, the certificates of authentication are provided by the congregations, upon request. It is recommended that certificates be requested, and maintained to ensure authenticity.
Deacon Parker warned that people need to beware of “alleged” relics, particularly in this day and age of Internet shopping. A search for “saint relics” on eBay, the world’s largest online marketplace, generated 371 sellers.
According to canon law, the sale of relics is “absolutely forbidden” (1190, 1). Relics should be legitimately obtained from Church sources.
“They’re wonderful things to have in your prayer arsenal,” said Deacon Parker. “Just as it’s important that we honor the buildings that we raise to the glory of God, we honor the living temples that were the saints.”
Read next week’s Denver Catholic Register for part two in this series highlighting some relics in the Denver Archdiocese.