Monday, 27 June 2011

Holy Relics – Treasures of Heaven









One of the cultural barriers to understanding the Catholic Faith is often perceived to be issues related to the saints, relics, images, pilgrimages and practices which are often subsumed under the category of popular piety.  The abuses associated with these aspects of piety in the Middle Ages have long been the source of prejudice against the Catholic Church.


When understood in the light of the official teaching (Magisterium) of the Church and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, (CCC) many of these concerns are mitigated or removed. As an example of these concerns, a consideration of the place and use of relics of our Lord and the saints may be useful.


The British Museum in London is presenting an exhibit of Christian relics beginning this month.  The title of the exhibit is “Treasures of Heaven”.  It is an exploration of the extensive social, cultural and religious use of relics in Europe since the dawn of Christianity.   Here is a link to the exhibit website:
http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/treasures_of_heaven/introduction.aspx
Reliquaries today







Reliquaries are used to contain earthly remains of saints.
The reason why these abuses were possible is that relics were a powerful image of the presence of God in people's lives and were highly valued by individuals and society. In other words, like all good things, relics could be and were misused and exploited and so this became a problem in late Medieval Europe and a cause of the Reformation.  







Reliquary of St. Hildegard


Much ink has been spilled over relics, not least in the Elizabethan era as expressed in the 39 Articles of Religion in the Book of Common Prayer (1662).  Note, for example, Article XXII: Blessed John Henry Newman addressed this matter in the 19th century in his famous Tract 90 as he sought to bring Catholic renewal to Anglicanism.  After reviewing the abuses concerning saints, relics, etc. that grew up in the Middle Ages, he points out that the Council of Trent (report published in 1565, after the publication of the 39 Articles) formally corrected these abuses while maintaining the sacred and healthy tradition associated with the communion of saints as professed in the Nicene and Apostles Creeds. Newman wrote in Tract 90:
The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration of Images as of Reliques, and also invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented.

" . . . urged by the truth of the allegation [that abuses had occurred], the Council of Trent is obliged, both to confess the above-mentioned enormities in the veneration of relics and images, and to forbid them: —
'Into these holy and salutary observances should any abuses have {305} crept, of these the Holy Council strongly [vehementer] desires the utter extinction; so that no images of a false doctrine, and supplying to the uninstructed opportunity of perilous error, should be set up . . .  All superstition also in invocation of saints, veneration of relics, and religious use of images, be put away; all filthy lucre be cast out of doors; and all wantonness be avoided; so that images be not painted or adorned with an immodest beauty; or the celebration of Saints and attendance on Relics be abused to revelries and drunkennesses; as though festival days were kept in honour of saints by luxury and lasciviousness.'   

[Council of Trent] Sess. 25."


In light of the fact that the issues surrounding the misuse of relics are now largely removed from modern consciousness, there is a great opportunity in the 21st century to visualise relics in a fresh way enhancing the doctrine of the communion of saints. Removed from much of the controversy of the past, relics continue to be a sacred presence in Catholic and Orthodox churches with their prescribed use at Mass, in altars and in various tombs, shrines and reliquaries in parish churches, cathedrals and places of pilgrimage.
Pope Benedict XVI and the Archbishop of Canterbury pray together and offer incense honouring the relics of St. Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey, A.D. 2010.


To understand the human and spiritual value of relics we need only look at the incarnational physicality that lies at the heart of Christianity.  Our faith takes the world and the human body seriously as the locus of the human soul and the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ.  Further, we are individually and collectively linked to God through the actual Body of Christ and the saints in their embodiment as the locus of the Holy Spirit transforming nature by grace.



The Church has consistently taught that we are transformed by grace and so the very flesh of the saints, or those who have displayed heroic sanctity, are mystically transformed. Little wonder that Christians would revere their bodies and items associated with them such as clothing and other “secondary” relics.



The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) teaches that “the communion of saints” has two closely linked meanings: communion ‘in holy things (sancta)’ and ‘among holy persons (sancti)’ CCC 948

Apart from our participation in the sacraments – assured means of grace –  through the proper celebration of rite and intention to share in holy things (sancta) we also have a continuing relationship with holy persons who have passed from the Church Militant (earth) and the Church Expectant (purification) to the Church Triumphant (heaven). As the CCC put it:

some of [our Lord’s] disciples are pilgrims on earth [Church Militant].  Others have died and are being purified [Church Expectant/ purifying in purgatory], while others are in glory contemplating the full light of God [Church Triumphant] . . .  CCC 954

Yet, we are all connected to one another through Baptism in the body of Christ and so can aid one another through prayer and intercession. For a Catholic Christian, it is no more unusual to ask a saint in glory (heaven) to pray for us than for us to ask a friend next to us to pray for us. 


We seek the companionship of friends, and their physical presence is embraced 
here on earth.  Why would we not seek to be close to the beloved saints who are in the nearer presence of God through contact with their sanctified bodily remains? The Holy Spirit sanctifies the whole person, body and soul, and so we honour the relics, the physical remains, of loved ones and saints.

Altar of St. Thomas in St. Peter's, Rome with relics of Pope St. Boniface 




Pilgrimage is a physical journey to a sacred location, a place made holy by the actions of a holy person or by the presence of their relics in an altar or shrine.  Santiago di Compostela, Lourdes, Fatima, the Jesuit Martyrs Shrine in Midland, Ontario, and many other places around the world, have been set aside as places of pilgrimage.  In a sense, every altar that contains the relic/s of a saint is a place of pilgrimage.


Relics and images of saints are honoured but never worshipped nor are saints prayed to in the sense that we pray to God, the Father, through Jesus in the power of the Spirit.  Rather, we pray with the saints or invoke their prayers:
So relics of holy ones are a very human way of evoking prayer and honouring the sacred.  Always, this is centred upon sharing in prayer through the Body of Christ, his Church, which is made up of the faithful who pray for one another both on earth and in glory.
“I prithee, ask of God’s grace . . .”
“I pray you, ask God’s blessing or God’s grace . . . .”


This is an ancient English usage, asking a saint or another friend to pray for us. There is only one object of worship for the Catholic Christian – God, the Holy Trinity.  All others, saints and the rest of us pilgrims, pray and worship God – but we worship together as one body whether we are in heaven or on earth.


Honouring saints and venerating images or relics is in no way idolatry i.e. the worship of a physical image or object, any more than honouring pictures of family members is. The veneration of images and relics is rather an expression of the Communion of Saints, praying for one another as part of one body, the Body of Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit.  We can pray for one another at all times but out of human need, many find it extremely helpful to do so in the presence of the sanctified physical presence of someone whom the Church has beatified or canonized.  A canonized saint is a person who is affirmed by the Church to be undoubtedly contemplating in the presence of the glory of God (heaven).  Sometimes indulgences are attached to shrines where relics are present but that is a topic for another day.


Finally, we pray for our own transformation by the same God, the Holy Spirit, like those we imitate, the saints. In our earthly life we naturally seek to remember and be close to them in whatever way possible because  they are, we are assured, the true treasures of heaven.

Turin Cathedral where the Shroud of Christ is kept as a relic.