Navigating the Faith: Relics

Relics – The Catholic Church’s Earthly Reminder of Divine Mercy and Saving Grace
by Fr. Rothell Price, Vicar General

Relic of Blessed Margaret Castello at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Columbus, Ohio

The relic of the heart of Saint John Berchmans will be brought to the Cathedral of St. John Berchmans on December 8. The arrival of the heart presents us with a wonderful opportunity to look more devotedly at the presence of relics in the life of our holy Catholic faith.

We Judeo-Christians have a long history with sacred objects that help us be mindful of the presence of God and rightly offer Him praise and worship. For our Jewish ancestors, the Ark of the Covenant was their most important sacred object constantly linking them with God, their Creator and Liberator. Later, the Temple in Jerusalem became their most sacred object where they connected with God through various forms of sacrifice. The Scrolls of the Torah are the central sacred object today uniting them to God in devotion.

For Catholics and our Protestant brothers and sisters, some form of the cross is our commonly held sacred object. As the Holy Apostle Paul said, “But may I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ….”  Galatians 6:14.  Catholics have a great devotion to the crucifix, while Protestants have a great devotion to the cross. A crucifix is a cross with the corpus or body of Jesus on it.  A cross does not include the body of Christ. A crucifix may contain Jesus still alive in his final agony, or the lifeless body of Jesus after commending his spirit into the hands of the Father. The fish or ICHTHYS is another symbol of Jesus shared by Catholics and Protestants.

Relics are the body, a portion of the body, or some item intimately connected with a saint that is reverently kept and displayed for the spiritual encouragement of the Christian faithful.  The religious tradition of venerating the relics of saints began with the custom of solemnly burying and caring for their graves. (Catholic Customs & Traditions: A Popular Guide, 113). This veneration was extended to the exhumed clothes, dust taken from their graves, and objects that touched the body of saints. The Church goes to great lengths to verify the authenticity of relics and greatly discourages items of legend as well as superstitious practices associated with them.

The first relics in the Church were the bodies and graves of the martyrs.  The Christian faithful retrieved the bodies of slain Christians from the Circus Maximus, Coliseum and other sites of persecution and execution. They began to build altars over the interred remains of the martyrs, or incorporated the container holding the body in the base of the altar. At a later time a portion of the bone from a martyr was incorporated into the mensa, or top of the altar.  On your next visit to your parish church, reverently go to the altar, lift up the white cloth covering the top of the altar to see if there lies an altar stone.  A relic of the saint of that church may be visible in a small metal case with a glass top, or, you may see a small circular spot where the relic has been placed inside the altar stone. If needed, ask your priest or someone from the office for assistance.

Someone once posed to me a stimulating question: “How are relics different from the remains of a cremated person a family has placed in an urn or divided into lockets?” I can give you several differences.

One, a relic is of a saintly person as so declared by the Church as distinct from the beloved remains of a cherished loved one. Two, the relic of a saint is intended for the spiritual encouragement of all the Christian faithful in their devotion to God, rather than individual encouragement.  Three, a relic serves the purpose of inciting a person to prayer and praise rather than consoling remembrance of a deceased loved one.  Four, venerating the relic of a saint reaffirms our belief in the communion of saints, the saints in heaven, joined to the saints on earth, joined to the saints in purgatory, not just the life of this one beloved individual.  Five, venerating a relic animates a person to imitate a particular saint in their love, service and witness to Jesus Christ.

There are three classes of relics in the Church:

First class relics are the actual and authenticated body or part of a body of a saint.
Second class relics are articles of clothing or some other article used by a saint.
Third class relics are any object(s) touched by a first class relic.

As the heart of St. John Berchmans comes to our Cathedral named to the glory of God in His honor, may this first class relic move us to a greater devotion to Our Lord, a more ardent love for His holy people who are the Church, and greater witness to the Father’s mercy that gives us life.  May God be praised in His saints.

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