Authenticating and protecting relics
In this issue:
To better ensure that the veneration of relics is properly followed, the Congregation for Saints' Causes released a new instruction December 2017 aimed at upholding the integrity of the practice. Relics offer Catholics a way to personally connect with the communion of saints, much like how we cherish mementos of deceased family members. The veneration of relics is a fundamentally biblical practice.
By Mike Nelson/Catholic News Service
The significance of relics in the church is well crystallized by the Gospel story of the woman desperate to stop her bleeding who approached Jesus, believing, "If only I can touch his cloak, I shall be cured" (Mt 9:20-22).
Once she had done so, Jesus told her, "Courage, daughter! Your faith has saved you." "Saints," the Second Vatican Council declared in "Sacrosanctum Concilium," the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, "have been traditionally honored in the church and their authentic relics and images held in veneration" (No. 111).
To better ensure that the veneration of relics -- practiced by Christians since the earliest days of the church -- is properly followed, the Congregation for Saints' Causes released a new instruction late last year, aimed at upholding the integrity of the practice.
"Relics in the Church: Authenticity and Preservation," promulgated last Dec. 8 and published Dec. 16 by the congregation, seeks to clarify the canonical procedures local bishops must follow during the process of verifying the authenticity of a relic and the mortal remains of a saint or blessed.
The instruction spells out specific steps pertaining to canonical recognition, extraction of fragments and creation of relics, transfer of the urn containing relics, alienation (transfer of ownership) of relics, obtaining the consent of the congregation to perform such procedures, and the steps to follow and personnel necessary for the pilgrimage of relics.
A Catholic News Service report noted that collectively these procedures are designed to better guarantee a relic's preservation, approve and track its movements, and promote its veneration.
It is directed, the congregation said in the instruction's introduction, "to diocesan bishops, eparchs and those who are equivalent to them in law, as well as to those who participate in the procedures regarding the relics of blesseds and saints and the mortal remains of servants of God and venerables, in order to facilitate the application of what is required in such a particular matter."
As the CNS report stated, the instruction clarifies and reaffirms that:
-- Only relics that have been certified as authentic can be exposed for veneration by the faithful.
-- Relics of the blesseds and saints "may not be displayed for the veneration of the faithful without a proper certificate of the ecclesiastical authority who guarantees their authenticity."
-- Any action taken regarding the relics or remains must have the consent of the congregation and the person recognized as the deceased's "heir." -- "Dismembering of the body is not allowed" unless the bishop has obtained permission from the congregation.
-- The sale or trade of relics remains "absolutely prohibited" as well as exposing them in "profane" or "unauthorized places."
In the event of an upcoming canonization or beatification, the CNS report noted, some small pieces or fragments already separated from the body can be removed for placement in a properly sealed reliquary.
A "similar discipline" the instruction stated, is likewise "applied to the mortal remains ("exuviae") of the servants of God and the venerables, whose causes of beatification and canonization are in progress."
Until "servants of God" and "venerables" are beatified or canonized, the instruction said, "their mortal remains may not enjoy any public cult."
Relics are divided into three classifications: a part of a saint's body (first-class), something a saint owned (second-class) and objects that have touched a first-class relic (third-class).
Many relics are encased in the altars of parish churches (especially cathedrals) or preserved in appropriate reliquaries on parish grounds, to be honored (venerated) by worshippers. Some miracles (and subsequent canonizations) have been attributed to coming into contact with a relic of a person deemed holy and virtuous.
As long as the veneration of relics has existed, so too has the possibility for abusing the authentication process, desecrating the relics and misconstruing what it means to venerate a relic.
St. Jerome alluded to as much in the fifth century, when he wrote, "We do not worship, we do not adore for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the Creator." Rather, Jerome said, we venerate relics "the better to adore him whose martyrs they are."
In the mid-16th century, the Council of Trent called upon bishops to encourage their faithful to venerate "the holy bodies of holy martyrs," since through them "many benefits are bestowed by God."
At the same time, the council decreed that in the veneration of relics and the sacred use of images, "every superstition shall be removed, all filthy lucre abolished."
The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that "the religious sense" of Christians has always found expression in "various forms of piety surrounding the church's sacramental life," including the veneration of relics as well as participating in pilgrimages, Stations of the Cross, the rosary and more (No. 1674).
"These expressions of piety," the catechism says, "extend the liturgical life of the church, but do not replace it" (No. 1675).
(Catholic journalist Mike Nelson writes from Los Angeles.)
By Kelly Bothum/Catholic News Service
The Maria Stein Shrine of the Holy Relics in Ohio is home to more than 1,153 relics, ranging from slivers of Christ's cross and part of St. Joseph's tunic to a piece of St. Maximilian Kolbe's habit and a snippet of hair from St. Teresa of Kolkata.
In a world that seems obsessed with celebrating things that are virtual or disposable, these relics are literal throwbacks of our Catholic faith. They offer Catholics a way to personally connect with the communion of saints, much like how we cherish mementos of deceased family members.
"The way I describe it to the kids who visit is this: You go to the cemetery. This is bringing the cemetery to you," said Matt Hess, coordinator of ministries and hospitality for the shrine. "Here, you can spend time with Thomas Aquinas without having to go to Italy. It's just such a presence."
Relics are usually bones, ashes, clothing or other personal belongings. First-class relics include those items that have physically touched the body of Jesus -- such as a piece of the manger, a sliver of the cross or a thorn from the crown -- or part of the remains of a saint, like a lock of hair or bone. At Maria Stein Shrine, 95 percent of the relics are first-class.
"Some people might say second-class relics aren't as important as the first-class ones, but it's still a way of remembering and feeling the presence," Hess said. "They were true heroes of faith and they also had the same problems and joys that we do."
St. Anthony Chapel in Pittsburgh has more than 5,000 relics, the largest collection outside of the Vatican. Most of the relics were acquired in the 19th century by Father Suitbert Mollinger, a physician priest. The collection is so large, not all can be easily displayed.
An alphabetized directory keeps track of the many relics, including 22 pieces of the true cross and relics from 1,200 saints, including Sts. Faustina, Boniface and Elizabeth of Hungary, said Carole Brueckner, chapel chairperson. St. Anthony is, not surprisingly, the most popular.
"We've had people who tell us they never knew the chapel existed. I tell them St. Anthony lets you know when you're ready," Brueckner said. "People say they feel a presence and it's awesome. We're very fortunate to have this."
In a nod to the increasingly digital age, Maria Stein Shrine has developed an app, eShrine -- available in the Apple app store -- that provides information about each of its relics.
Hess said visitors often ask about authenticity of the relics, which is a natural response for a modern society. Strict instructions from the Vatican dictate relics must be authenticated for display. "Every relic we have has a document attached to it," he said.
Relics are placed in a theca, or locket, which is tied with red thread and sealed with wax bearing the crest of a church authority certifying the relic, Hess said. The certifying document, written in Latin, has the same seal. "All of our relics have a matching seal and unbroken red thread," he added.
The certifying documents for more recent relics are easier to verify. Older relics, from the sixth century and earlier, have been passed through the years by the church, and that history itself often is what is used as a means of authentication.
"Relics, like everything, take faith," Hess said. "They are meant to feed the faith, not base our faith on. They are sacramentals, not sacraments."
St. Anthony's Chapel draws thousands of visitors annually, Brueckner said. Occasionally, relics are brought out for veneration, such as on a feast day. The relic is held by a priest or deacon and people can touch, kiss or bow before it. The relic is later wiped with a purificator.
A bow from visitors is an appropriate way to show respect. "We don't adore relics," Hess said. "We only adore Christ."
(Bothum is a freelance writer and a mother of three.)
By Paul Senz/Catholic News Service
The veneration of relics is a fundamentally biblical practice; it is not some sort of innovation in the centuries after Christ. On the contrary, as Scripture reveals, the veneration of relics was widely practiced, in one form or another, by ancient Jews as well.
In the Old Testament, the Second Book of Kings details the death of Elisha the prophet. "Once some people were burying a man, when suddenly they saw such a raiding band. So they cast the man into the grave of Elisha, and everyone went off. But when the man came in contact with bones of Elisha, he came back to life and got to his feet" (2 Kgs 13:20-21).
This miracle is an early example of relics and the way that God can work wonders through them.
In the New Testament, one of the clearest examples is the story in the Gospels of Matthew (Mt 14:35-36), Mark (Mk 6:56) and Luke (Lk 8:43-44), in which people bring the sick to Jesus so that they might "touch only the tassel on his cloak," and by coming into this direct contact with him, be healed.
The Acts of the Apostles tells of an early practice of venerating relics: "So extraordinary were the mighty deeds God accomplish at the hands of Paul that when face cloths or aprons that touched his skin were applied to the sick, their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them" (Acts 19:11-12).
In the early church, the age of martyrs and persecution, relics took on an even more important role in the life of the church. St. Polycarp, a disciple of the apostle John, was martyred in 155/156. A contemporary account of Polycarp's martyrdom stated:
"We took up his bones, which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and 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."
So, with all of this in mind, what does the church teach about the veneration of relics?
The Vatican's "Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy" states that the term "relics of the saints" typically refers to "the bodies -- or notable parts of the bodies -- of the saints who, as distinguished members of Christ's mystical body and as temples of the Holy Spirit in virtue of their heroic sanctity, now dwell in heaven, but who once lived on earth."
Furthermore, it is not just their bodies, but "objects that belonged to the saints, such as personal objects, clothes and manuscripts are also considered relics, as are objects that have touched their bodies or tombs such as oils, cloths and images" (No. 236).
Catholics venerate relics -- not because the individual saint is worthy of some sort of worship, or because there is anything inherently powerful in the relic itself -- but because the relics are used by God as occasions of grace and wonder, and to show his power and love.
(Senz is a freelance writer living in Oregon with his family.)
Many young Catholics, who rarely hear about relics in religion or church classes, as well as non-Catholics, may have questions about the practice of venerating relics, said Bishop Edward K. Braxton of Belleville, Illinois, in an All Saints' Day reflection in 2015.
"They may think that veneration of physical remains is a form of superstition or magical thinking," he said, and Catholics who venerate the saints should "make sure that nothing in our devotional practices reinforces this misunderstanding."
"There are many Catholics for whom the veneration of relics is not a part of their spiritual lives," and yet are still devoted to the saints, the bishop noted.
Catholics venerate relics, he said, "not because of a macabre preoccupation with the great mystery of death, but because of our timeless faith in the great mystery of the Incarnation."
Adoration is rendered to God alone, Bishop Braxton said. Respectful veneration must not be confused with worship, as religious images and relics are merely "things," he added.
Catholics do not venerate relics because they expect the relic "to do something to us or for us," he said.
"If someone experiences profound spiritual renewal or (in very rare cases) a physical healing after venerating a relic, this must be seen as the power of God responding to acts of extraordinary faith," Bishop Braxton explained.
"In faith, we hold out the hope that when we pray in the presence of a relic of a saint's body (which was once a temple of the Holy Spirit) with an open mind, an open heart and an open spirit, we are disposed for the grace of God to help us to live the virtues exemplified by the faithful disciple of Christ whose body we venerate," he said.