After the sacred mystery of Jesus’ True and Substantial Presence — Body, Blood, soul and divinity — hidden in the Holy Eucharist and the great amount of devotion (not worship) given to the Virgin Mary, what puzzles the non-Catholic the most about the Faith is the veneration of relics. Just what does the Church teach about this mysterious devotion?
First, let us define what relics are. There are three classes (not types) of relics: First class, second class and third class. A first class relic is usually a small piece of bone from a saint’s body…I have seen once where the relic was a tiny piece of flesh (St. Teresa, actually). It is always encased in a special receptacle called a reliquary. They are usually round — about an inch and a half in diameter.. The back of it is sealed in wax with a tiny label indicating the name of the saint in Latin. However, the relic I saw containing the tiny speck of flesh of St. Teresa of Avila was in a special gold cross that opened at the long end; it also contained a bone fragment of St. John of the Cross).
Second class relics are something “owned by the Saint or instruments of torture that was used against a martyr”1. Third class relics “consists of something that has been touched to a 1st or 2nd Class Relic”2.
The term “relic” is not in sacred Scripture but we do see this: “So extraordinary were the mighty deeds 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”3.
Relics are in the domain of the Roman Curia of the Vatican which is comprised of many offices, Congregations, Councils, Commissions, etc. The Congregation of the Causes of Saints is “responsible for verifying and preserving sacred relics”4. It is said that “anyone can make their own 3rd Class relics by touching an object to a 1st or 2nd Class Relic, including the tomb of a Saint”5.
In many Catholic churches there usually are relics inside special reliquaries inside the altar. While it is not the reason why a priest kisses the altar at the start and end of Mass but normatively that reliquary is where he kisses the altar. Those relics are requested by the diocesan Bishop (A priest kisses the altar because it is where the Sacrifice of Jesus is offered).
Relics have no power of their own — nor are they talismans or good luck charms. Rather it is the prayer of faith that accompanies the “use” of the relic that can be effective.
Sometimes the relics are a bit on the unusual side. When Catherine of Siena, a member of the Third Order of St. Dominic (TOSD) died at the age of 33 in 1380, both Siena and Rome claimed her as their own. A year after her death, it was determined to raise her casket from the ground to be placed in a better one. Fr. Raymond of Capua was her spiritual director and he was charged to bring her head back to Siena while leaving her body in Rome where she had died. Having received permission from Pope Urban “he once more visited the sacred body and first prostrating on the ground and asking her assistance, he then with generous resolution separated the head from the body, enclosed it in a reliquary of copper…”6. It is said that at the grand procession from Rome to Siena, Catherine’s own mother Lapa was at its end. Only years earlier Lapa had spent great amounts of time making fun of Catherine and mocking her desires to belong exclusively to Jesus. For a picture of this relic of her head on display at the Church of St. Dominic in Siena, Italy, see the link below.7
In 2012 or 2013 one of the parishes in Chelmsford, MA hosted a young woman who was a niece (perhaps grand-niece) of St. Pio of Pieltricina known simply as Padre Pio. She had with her one of the gloves that had belonged to the holy saint. It was not just any glove but it was one that he took to wearing night and day after he had received the Sacred Stigmata (wounds of Jesus in his hands). A prayer service was held in his honor and she spoke of her uncle as she knew him.
If you still wish to know more about relics and wish to experience something of a grand scale, the incorrupt body of St. Maria Goretti will be on pilgrimage in the United States in the fall of 2015, beginning September 21st through November 13, 2015. For the calendar of the pilgrimage, go to the link below.8 St. Maria Goretti is unique in that she is the youngest canonized saint in the Church. She died tragically in 1902 at the age of 11. You can read more about who she was at the link below.9
If you go on this pilgrimage tour, be prepared for very long lines to get in to see her. Most churches will be packed but to witness such an event is quite the grace indeed. Her body will be in New York City to coincide with the visit of Pope Francis in late September. Bring your rosary beads or a piece of small cloth and if you can get close enough to her casket, rub your object across its surface. I cannot say for certain how close you would be able to get.
Remember however, it is not the relic itself that has any power, but the prayer of faith uttered for divine help can be of great merit. Then why have them? Most people who lose a loved-one enjoy retaining something special of that loved one — their rosary, a piece of jewelry, or something else the loved one used. Are these relics? No, they are simply mementos but they somehow give us comfort. The same is said of relics but the person the items belonged to are either declared to be saints of the Church or their process of canonization has begun.
3. Acts 19:11-12
About Cynthia Trainque
Cynthia Trainque is an author who is enrolled in the Master of Arts in Ministry (MAM) for the Laity at St. John’s Seminary, Brighton, MA. She has served the church for several years as a worker, writer, and volunteer and is presently an active member of Our Lady of the Lake in Leominster, MA. She has a great love of sacred art and objects and enjoys photographing them. She may be contacted at Catherineofsienamedia@yahoo.com.