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.)