The Papal Artifacts’ Collection is primarily dedicated to artifacts connected to the papacy. Individual popes, their biographies and multiple items belonging to them, including first and second class relics, make up the majority of this Collection. But that isn’t all it is.
Father Kunst has a deep devotion to the saints as can be readily seen in viewing the Saints & Blesseds section of this site. We invite you to visit Papal History/Saints & Blesseds to view the many canonized and beatified men and women who make up this section of the Collection.
St. Felix of Nola is one of them.
A Rare Wooden Gilt Arm Reliquary
Bone Fragments of St. Felix of Nola
The artifact is a standing arm reliquary measuring 22” tall by 6” wide containing a substantial arm bone relic of Saint Felix, martyr.
The wax seal and threads are unbroken and all in place.
Reliquaries often take the form of the relic they contain, such as a head or bust for the skull fragments, hair, or teeth and, in this case an arm.
A 100 years after St. Felix’s death, St. Paulinus of Nola told his story, adding without discernment appealing legends that had accumulated over the years. But we can trust the unadorned factual outline of Felix’s life.
After Felix divested himself of all his possessions, St. Maximus, the bishop of Nola, a town near Naples, Italy, ordained him a priest and made him his right-hand man. In 250, when Emperor Decius decreed a ferocious persecution, Maximus installed himself in a desert hiding place from which he safely governed the church. Because soldiers could not find Maximus at Nola, they tortured and jailed Felix in his place. However, just as St. Peter had had a miraculous escape from prison, an angel is said to have released Felix. Then the angel guided Felix to rescue Maximus, who was near death.
Further Information about St. Felix
The persecution subsided in 251. Upon the death of Maximus the people wanted to name Felix as bishop, but he declined. Instead he retired to a small farm, where for the rest of his life he raised crops to feed himself and provide alms for the poor. St. Felix died around 260.
Every year Paulinus wrote a poem to celebrate Felix’s feast day. In one he said that while Felix did not die a martyr he was willing to offer his life as a sacrifice to God. Paulinus thus provided one of the earliest definitions of a “confessor”:
This festive day celebrates Felix’s birthday, the day on which he died physically on earth and was born for Christ in heaven, winning his heavenly crown as a martyr who did not shed his blood. For he died as confessor, though he did not avoid execution by choice, since God accepted his inner faith in place of blood. God looks into the silence of hearts, and equates those ready to suffer with those who have already done so, for he considers this inward test as sufficient, and dispenses with physical execution in case of true devotion. Martyrdom without bloodshed is enough for him if mind and faith are ready to suffer and are fervent towards God.
Paulinus adopted Felix as his patron saint, a custom that had its roots in the early church. But for Paulinus, a patron was more than a namesake. Felix not only interceded for him in heaven. He also accompanied him spiritually as an encourager, guide, and protector, as Paulinus explained in the following passage:
Father and lord, best of patrons to servants however unworthy, at last our prayer is answered to celebrate your birthday within your threshold. . . .You know what toils on land and sea have . . . kept me far from your abode in a distant world, because I have always and everywhere had you near me, and have called on you in the grim moments of travel, and in the uncertainties of life.. . . I never sailed without you, for I felt your protection in Christ the Lord when I overcame rough seas. On land and water my journeying is always made safe through you. Felix, I beg you, address a prayer on behalf of your own to that Embodiment of the calm of eternal love and peace, to him on whose great name you depend.
Commentary from the Curator
Fr. Richard Kunst
Venerating Relics Is 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 follows 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 them” (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.
Paulinus of Nola
Paulinus was an aristocratic Roman senator, born in Bordeaux, who converted to Christianity in 389. Following the death of his only child, a boy, some years later, he was ordained a priest and embraced a much more thoroughgoing form of Christianity.
Despite holding substantial estates in France and Spain, he moved to Nola in southern Italy. There, at his own expense, he set about commemorating a little-known Roman martyr, Felix (whose feast day is April 23), executed in the 3rd century, building a substantial complex, including a basilica, in his honor.
Paulinus also formed a small monastic community. In 410 he was appointed bishop of Nola. Paulinus’s life is unusually well documented chiefly due to the survival of a substantial number of his letters and poems.