Father Richard Kunst: Venerating Relics Is an Age-Old Church Practice
One of my favorite things in the world to do is travel to Rome. My passion for church and papal history makes Rome my proverbial candy store.
Anyone who has spent time in that beautiful city can attest to the beauty of the churches, but in the tours I have led to the Eternal City, I have found varying reactions to the relics on display in their sanctuaries. It seems that most of the churches have some sort of major relic on display, anything from the crib of Christ to the chains that held Peter in prison, to literally walls of saints’ body parts right before your eyes. To some this might seem macabre; to the church it is the age-old practice of venerating relics.
All cultures treat their dead with respect. For Christians, who believe that the body is the temple of the Holy Sprit, it only follow that great respect should be given to those who most clearly lived out the Gospels, those who most clearly lived in imitation of Christ.
Catholicism has rightly been referred to as the religion of “smells and bells,” which to my way of thinking is completely appropriate. God made us physical, tangible beings, so it is the physical, tangible world that very often speaks to us in a most eloquent way. Our religion is full of physical symbols, not the least important being that of relics.
There are three types of relics, three traditional classes. A first-class relic is the body of a saint or a part of a saint’s body. It could be a piece of bone, flesh or even a lock of hair. A second-class relic is an item that the saint wore or used in his or her lifetime. A third-class relic is a piece of cloth that was touched to the body of a saint. Very often you will see a second- or third-class relic in a holy card or in a medal pendant, while first-class relics are rightly more difficult to obtain and will need documentation to be considered authentic or used for public veneration.
Relics are not magical, nor are they tools of superstition. If they are used as such, they are quite literally being abused. Relics are only worth the faith they provoke. If someone wears a small piece of cloth of a saint in a pendant for good luck, then the relic is of no use or of value. If, on the other hand, a relic inspires the faith, then it is of great value and has served its purpose.
It may surprise you that venerating relics and the potential power of relics is also scriptural. In the Second Book of Kings, we see how the bones of the prophet Elisha bought a dead man to life: “They cast the dead man into the grave of Elisha, and everyone went off. But when the man came in contact with the bones of Elisha, he came back to life and rose to his feet” (2 Kings 13:21).
In the New Testament, too, we see the emergence of relics in the early church: “So extraordinary were the mighty deeds which God accomplished 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 the” (Acts 19:11-12).
The role relics have played in the faith lives of both the Jewish people and Christians is clearly documented in the Bible itself.
In church history, there has also been an unfortunate side to the veneration of relics, or at least in the collecting of them. Many kings, queen and emperors tried to out-do one another in a competition to lay claim to the greatest relic. Very often this was done for economic gain, since the greater the relic, the better chance of attracting pilgrims; the more pilgrims, the more money into your local economy. Out of this came the widespread forgeries that were taking place not only of significant relics but also of small ones, since many of these simple-minded pilgrims would be suckered into buying a fabricated piece of the relic they just visited. Eventually, the church became much more careful in guarding against forgeries, and now is very careful and precise when distributing true relics.
Something should also be said about the modern day “relic trade” on eBay and other online auction sites. The selling of relics has once again become big business because of these web sites. A simple search will reveal hundreds of relics that are available. It is against church teaching to buy or sell relics. Usually sellers find a loophole in stating the reliquary is what is for sale, and that the relic comes free with the reliquary. There are also many forgeries out there; there is no such thing as a relic of any class of St. Michael the Archangel.
Either way, the selling of relics has become a very unfortunate situation. They are to be venerated, not used for making a profit. If you happen to have relics and you don’t know what to do with them, call your local priest or the diocese. Do not sell them.
—Father Richard Kunst
At Mass, Saints Are With Us, Body and Soul
Here is an interesting fact that I suspect many people are not aware of: Embedded inside the altar at your parish church there is a small fragment of a saint’s body.
Yes, most altars have a small, square piece of what appears to be a gray stone, and embedded in it is usually a bone fragment. These gray stones are simply called “altar stones.” When a parish church closes, one of the things that has to happen is that the altar stones are removed to preserve the sacredness of the relic and because of its association with the sacrifice of the Mass.
In our diocese, if you were to go down to the archives of at the Pastoral Center, you would see a stack of altar stones that have been collected from decommissioned altars over the years. But even more interesting than the stack of altar stones is a small black box on one of the many shelves. Inside this very unassuming box are two substantial relics: large bone fragments from St. Irenaeus, a second century bishop and martyr, and from St. Donatus, one of the ten different saints of that name.
These large relics were given to the Diocese of Duluth by the Vatican soon after the diocese was established by Pope Leo XIII in 1889 to be placed in the altar stones throughout the diocese. So chances are your parish altar has a fragment of one of these two saints. We may even call them secondary patrons of our diocese, since in a very real way they are present when we gather to worship at the altar.
But what’s the point? Why do we have these body fragments in our altars? Well, there are two reasons — a historical one of ancient tradition and a theological one.
In the earliest centuries of the church, it was illegal to be a Christian. We all know that Christianity was persecuted and that countless people were put to death for simply believing in Christ. Many of the people who were martyred were soon considered to be saints, and with some of these saints their popularity grew very quickly, so much so that when other Christians would die, their loved ones would bury them as close to the tomb of the martyred saint as possible. You can still see this evidenced in the catacombs of Rome: several tombs crammed in above and alongside the saint.
Eventually what happened was that these popular martyred saints would be buried in a tomb that could also act as an altar. And so it became a common practice for the early Christians to celebrate Mass over the actual tomb of a saint.
To keep that ancient and noble practice, the church started to take relics of the saints and place them in the altar stones so that churches throughout the world could have that same close connection to one of the saints that the Christians in Rome were able to have.
From my perspective, it’s the theological reason for the relics in the altar that is most compelling.
Perhaps the most basic tenet of Christianity is that Jesus came to save us so that we could be with God forever in heaven. The doctrine of heaven in its most basic format is that it is a state of being in complete union with God. Jesus’ death and resurrection opened the gates of heaven for us. So the saints in heaven are with God. They are closer to God than those of us who are still on our pilgrim journey.
If the saints (and the angels) are in perfect union with God, then where do you suppose they are? At Mass with us!
We Catholics believe that the Eucharist is the fullness of the presence of Christ, body, blood, soul and divinity. If Christ is God, the Second Person of the Trinity, then by default the angels and saints are at Mass with us because they are with God in heaven. This is one of the reasons why the Mass is called the heavenly liturgy: God the Son is here with us, along with the saints and the angels.
So St. Irenaeus and St. Donatus are not only in the altar, they themselves are actually present at the Mass with us, along with the other 10,000 canonized saints and the myriad other faithful people who have made it to heaven.
As an aside, it makes more sense, then, to go to Mass instead of the cemetery if you want to get as close as possible to a deceased loved one. Their remains are in the cemetery, but their souls are present with God, who also happens to be present in the Eucharist.
So at some point you may want to ask your pastor to let you see the altar stone that is in the altar of your parish. It may not look like much, but its significance is huge, both historically and theologically.
St. Irenaeus and St. Donatus, pray for us! –Father Richard Kunst