Q. For years I have wondered how the church can countenance the “veneration” of relics, an ethnic custom apparently grounded in medieval superstition. I have seen incredible frauds — the Blessed Virgin’s wedding ring, bones of apparently nonexistent saints, stains of the Virgin’s milk (since removed from the church in Subiaco). It is difficult to see the connection of any of this with the mission of Christ set forth in Scripture, the creed or Catholic theology.
I thought this was all confined to the nether regions by now, but a recent notice in our paper said a portion of the arm of the American saint Mother Cabrini is making the rounds of churches. Can you explain why these activities continue to be promoted by the church? (Illinois)
A. You are certainly correct that the veneration of relics, especially parts of saints’ bodies, is a particularly bizarre practice to many Catholics and certainly to people outside the church.
It may help to note that Catholic tradition has engendered thousands of spiritual customs and practices, many of which have been approved but nearly all of which, including veneration of relics, are optional, depending on individual spiritual inclinations and needs. None of them place any obligation on Catholic faithful. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, for example, never mentions relics.
Veneration of relics was not a medieval invention. Honoring the bodies of saints, especially martyrs, goes back at least to the second century. Sometimes the blood of martyrs was kept on a cloth as a reminder to the Christian community of their courage in professing the faith.
The Eucharist was celebrated and churches were built over their tombs, all, of course, to inspire Christians still alive to similar bravery and faithfulness.
In the Middle Ages relics became a major part of Catholic spirituality. Possession of bodies of certain saints became a source of prestige for churches and monasteries, which generated fierce controversies about how relics were treated and venerated.
When St. Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican, died in 1274, for example, in the Italian Cistercian monastery of Fossa Nova the monks reportedly decapitated his body to assure they would keep his remains.
Buying and selling, even stealing bodies or parts of bodies was common and in fact became an international business. To this day church law prohibits “alienation” or permanent transfer of major relics from one place to another without the pope’s consent (Canon 1190).
Veneration of relics gave rise to a host of feasts, shrines and pilgrimages, particularly in Europe. At a royal banquet in 1392, King Charles VI of France distributed to his guests ribs of his ancestor on the throne, St. Louis — of St. Louis, Mo., fame. Some opposition to these practices always occurred, but even popes were nearly powerless to discourage them.
In the 1500s, mishandling and sales of relics became one of the abuses condemned by leaders of the Protestant Reformation. In 1563, the Council of Trent defended the veneration of relics. The bodies of saints, it said, were temples of the Holy Spirit and destined for the resurrection.
These motives remain valid, but the church is cautious lest this aspect of Catholic spirituality again assume an importance way out of proportion. The church’s current norms for indulgences, for example, include no prayers or practices relating to relics of the saints.
A longtime columnist with Catholic News Service, Father Dietzen died March 27, 2011.Tags: Catholic Beliefs, Feast Days & Saints