In a world that seems obsessed with celebrating things that are virtual or disposable, these relics are literal throwbacks of our Catholic faith. They offer Catholics a way to personally connect with the communion of saints, much like how we cherish mementos of deceased family members.
“The way I describe it to the kids who visit is this: You go to the cemetery. This is bringing the cemetery to you,” said Matt Hess, coordinator of ministries and hospitality for the shrine. “Here, you can spend time with Thomas Aquinas without having to go to Italy. It’s just such a presence.”
Relics are usually bones, ashes, clothing or other personal belongings. First-class relics include those items that have physically touched the body of Jesus — such as a piece of the manger, a sliver of the cross or a thorn from the crown — or part of the remains of a saint, like a lock of hair or bone. At Maria Stein Shrine, 95 percent of the relics are first-class.
“Some people might say second-class relics aren’t as important as the first-class ones, but it’s still a way of remembering and feeling the presence,” Hess said. “They were true heroes of faith and they also had the same problems and joys that we do.”
St. Anthony Chapel in Pittsburgh has more than 5,000 relics, the largest collection outside of the Vatican. Most of the relics were acquired in the 19th century by Father Suitbert Mollinger, a physician priest. The collection is so large, not all can be easily displayed.
An alphabetized directory keeps track of the many relics, including 22 pieces of the true cross and relics from 1,200 saints, including Sts. Faustina, Boniface and Elizabeth of Hungary, said Carole Brueckner, chapel chairperson. St. Anthony is, not surprisingly, the most popular.
“We’ve had people who tell us they never knew the chapel existed. I tell them St. Anthony lets you know when you’re ready,” Brueckner said. “People say they feel a presence and it’s awesome. We’re very fortunate to have this.”
In a nod to the increasingly digital age, Maria Stein Shrine has developed an app, eShrine — available in the Apple app store — that provides information about each of its relics.
Hess said visitors often ask about authenticity of the relics, which is a natural response for a modern society. Strict instructions from the Vatican dictate relics must be authenticated for display. “Every relic we have has a document attached to it,” he said.
Relics are placed in a theca, or locket, which is tied with red thread and sealed with wax bearing the crest of a church authority certifying the relic, Hess said. The certifying document, written in Latin, has the same seal. “All of our relics have a matching seal and unbroken red thread,” he added.
The certifying documents for more recent relics are easier to verify. Older relics, from the sixth century and earlier, have been passed through the years by the church, and that history itself often is what is used as a means of authentication.
“Relics, like everything, take faith,” Hess said. “They are meant to feed the faith, not base our faith on. They are sacramentals, not sacraments.”
St. Anthony’s Chapel draws thousands of visitors annually, Brueckner said. Occasionally, relics are brought out for veneration, such as on a feast day. The relic is held by a priest or deacon and people can touch, kiss or bow before it. The relic is later wiped with a purificator.
A bow from visitors is an appropriate way to show respect. “We don’t adore relics,” Hess said. “We only adore Christ.”
(Bothum is a freelance writer and a mother of three.)