Relics: Grace Working Through Matter

Within a few days of the martyrdom of St. Polycarp in the mid-second century, the members of his community sent a report to other Churches with a full eyewitness account. In the course of it, they not only described what they saw, but also revealed quite a bit to future generations about the common assumptions they shared with other Christians of the time, and the common misunderstandings their non-Christian neighbors, both Jew and Pagan, had about them. Describing their frustration with the hostility shown their attempts to honor the body of their sainted martyr, they complained that the devil “did his utmost that not the least memorial of him should be taken away by us, although many desired to do this, and to become possessors of his holy flesh.” The Romans, at the suggestion of the local Jewish leaders, chose to burn the body of Polycarp rather than permit burial lest, “forsaking Him that was crucified, they begin to worship this one.” Polycarp’s friends, in frustration, explained “it is neither possible for us ever to forsake Christ, who suffered for the salvation of such as shall be saved throughout the whole world (the blameless one for sinners), nor to worship any other. For Him indeed, as being the Son of God, we adore; but the martyrs, as disciples and followers of the Lord, we worthily love on account of their extraordinary affection towards their own King and Master, of whom may we also be made companions and fellow disciples!” The Roman, unmoved, burn Polycarp to ashes and the disciples, as soon as the fires cooled, took Polycarp’s bones and honored them, especially on the anniversary of the day he finished his earthly race and entered into Heaven.

Several things should be noticed here. First, note that the Jewish and pagan persecutors sound remarkably like modern fundamentalist Christians in that they cannot distinguish between the worship Christians give to Jesus as the Son of God and the veneration they pay to mere creatures like Polycarp. In contrast, the authors of the letter assume (and know their readers assume) that it is a perfectly normal and good thing for Christians to “become possessors of [a saint’s] holy flesh” as a “memorial”. But they desire to do so, not in order to ignore Jesus and batten on the corpse of Polycarp as a new god, but because they honor him as a servant of Christ. Moreover, they assume that the remains of the saint are to be accorded fitting honors and venerated both in celebration of the saint’s “finished course” and as inspiration for those of us still on earth who have yet to finish the race.

The key to understanding such a record is to note what the authors and readers take for granted: namely, that all of this is not something the venerators of Polycarp’s relics just came up with. Rather, it is rooted in something fundamental in human nature, rooted in both the Old and New Testaments and in the development of Christian thinking in light of the incarnation.

Honoring the dead is, of course, a practice as old as, indeed, older than the human race as we know it. An extinct species of human, Homo Neanderthalensis, is known to have buried his dead. Our ancestors, Homo Sapiens Sapiens, did likewise. This is a sea change from all other creatures in the animal kingdom and suggests that some form of reverence of the dead and hope or fear of an afterlife goes right back to the roots of human consciousness. And, of course, it remains a constant to this day.

The Chosen People were no different. Building on this immemorial human impulse, one of the acts of piety in ancient Judaism, as in Christianity, was “burying the dead”. And in some Old Testament stories, we see the remains of saints being used by God in a quasi-sacramental way to communicate divine power (as, for instance, in the story of the man who was brought back from the dead by contact with the bones of Elisha the prophet [2 Kings 13:20-21]). Similarly, other objects (notably, the Ark of the Covenant or the staff of Moses) are seen as imbued with some sort of spiritual power.

So too, in the New Testament, there is the constantly reiterated intuition that God will channel his life, power and grace through physical objects. So the woman who has suffered from bleeding for twelve years seeks to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment in her bid for healing. Moreover, Jesus does not rebuke her as superstitious but instead commends her faith (Luke 8:43-47). Indeed, Jesus himself will use everything from saliva to water to mud to his own hands in order to communicate his grace and power.

And the apostles come to understand why. The ancient human intuition about the sacredness of the dead human body and the curious apprehension that matter has to communicate life and grace comes to a focus in Jesus himself. As John tells us, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). In Christ, the ancient riddle is finally laid bare: creation is not God (and so creatures cannot be worshiped). But because God has taken on a body of matter in Jesus Christ, matter is hallowed and taken up by its Creator to participate in the work of redemption. Supremely, the human body—even the dead human body—is hallowed because God himself not only suffered bodily death, but rose again. The ancient intuition that the dead human body is sacred and not simply meat that should be left to rot is emphatically blessed and transformed when the women bring spices to the tomb only to find Jesus’ corpse transformed into a glorified body that will never know death again.

For this reason, the Church would immediately begin to venerate holy things. For instance, handkerchiefs that Paul had touched were venerated (understandably so, since those touched them were miraculously healed thereby [Acts 19:11-12]). Likewise, the sick believed that Peter’s mere shadow had the power to heal (Acts 5:14-15). And, of course, the entire Christian tradition was absolutely centered on the proposition that each and every Mass consisted of our entering into transformative union with the True Body and Blood of the Risen Christ.

That is the basis for the theology of relics in the Catholic tradition: God likes matter. He made it. He dwells forever in a glorified human body that has been transfigured into the first deposit on the New Heaven and the New Earth. His Mother, likewise, enjoys this transformed bodily life. The great field of time, space, matter and energy is undergoing a messy act of renovation that will issue, on That Day, in the transformation of all of reality, including our bodies in the Resurrection of the Dead and the Life Everlasting.

So, as a sign, the Church honors God via the relics of the bodies of the saints, the things that they used, and the lives that they touched. It’s a classic instance of grace perfecting nature: taking our natural impulse to cherish Dad’s watch, gawk at Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers in the Smithsonian, or sleep where George Washington once slept and putting that impulse in touch with the sacramental power of the Holy Spirit to transform lives. So we cherish a relic of St. Catherine of Siena, look in wonder at the Shroud of Turin or stand in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and reflect on the fact that Jesus Christ slept in death here—and awoke.

Three Classes of Relic

Relics generally fall into first, second, or third class. A first class relic is (usually) part of the body of a saint. Many Catholics do not know that relic are found in their altars (our parish has a relic of the True Cross, which falls somewhere between a first and second class relic given its absolutely essential place in the Passion of our Lord).

The point of all this is deeply Catholic: the Church is the principal sacrament of Christ, spreading out through the world and mediating his grace to us. What relics “say” is that the gospel is the life of Christ who comes to us bodily, not only in the Eucharist consecrated on the altar, but in the body of Christ that is the Church herself. The early Christians intuited this and, after the first generation began to die (often in martyrdom), the faithful met at their graves to say Mass and invoke their intercession.

Once the sacramental principle is granted, it’s not hard to understand that it can be extended to other matter. So if you have no relic of a saint’s body due to the fact that he or she was incinerated like Joan of Arc or Maximilien Kolbe, you can still honor them (as you might honor your father’s gold watch) by means of a second class relic that had belonged to them. When English author G.K. Chesterton died, for instance, Fr. Vincent McNabb picked up his pen and blessed it; surely a fitting relic of such a man of letters. Likewise, other possessions of saints—clothes, household items, letters, prayer books—all the ordinary whatnot that comprised their day to day lives.

Finally, a third class relic is something that has been brought into contact with a first class relic. Don’t underestimate such sacramentals. St. Paul’s handkerchiefs were third class relics and they were used by God to heal and drive out demons after having merely been touched to him.

Of course, the skeptic will call all such things “magic” because he has a theory that no matter is sacred—except for the three pound piece of meat behind his eyes that he mysteriously imbues with sacred significance. Catholics don’t limit God in this way and honor his power and glory in all of creation, not merely in the firing of neurons in a rationalist’s brain. The bottom line: God, under carefully controlled laboratory conditions, can do whatever he likes.

Some Popular Relics

Catholic devotion to relics is a rather wild riot of local devotions and global appeal. It encompasses intensely personal devotion, a plethora of miracles both well-documented and semi-legendary, the banal and the extraordinary. Here are just a few.

The Shroud of Turin

Perhaps the most famous relic in the world, at present, is the Shroud of Turin, which is currently available for public viewing at the Cathedral in Turin. Believed by many (including this author) to be the burial shroud of Jesus Christ, it contain the strange photographic negative image of a naked man who had endured exactly the sufferings described in the New Testament account of Jesus’ Crucifixion. Dubious Carbon-14 tests by scientists eager to prove the Shroud a fraud have yielded predictably dubious results. Meanwhile, nobody can really account for the image, nor for the fact that fossil pollen shows that the Shroud has been in the Middle East. If it is a medieval forgery, it is utterly unique and was never duplicated. And if it is a real image dating from the time of Jesus, but is actually the image of some other person, it’s a coincidence that boggles the mind. Strangest of all, of course, is the fact that the image is a negative and that nobody was able to see the positive image until the invention of photography, which is an awfully weird aid to devotion for a pious medieval artist.

The Church, as is her custom, pronounces no definitive judgment on the Shroud. If it is proven to be a human artifact then that’s that. But the rumors of the Shroud’s death are greatly exaggerated by an anti-Catholic culture with a polemical need to downplay the possibility that You Know Who might have done an extraordinary miracle in witness to the Resurrection.

The Shroud falls somewhat betwixt and between in terms of how to classify it. It has bloodstains on it, meaning that, if genuine, we are looking at the actual blood of Jesus Christ himself: the same blood that takes away the sins of the world. On the other hand, it could also be described as a second class relic since it is, in a unique way, the most important piece of cloth ever worn by a human being, testifying to the conquest of Christ over the power of death in the instant of his Resurrection.

The Shroud, if genuine, is perhaps the Relic of Relics, because of its intimate connection to the very body and blood of Jesus himself. Most relics are more remote from the Epicenter who is Christ, but are still vitally connected to him by faith.

Padre Pio

For instance, a recent saint who has been much beloved in popular Catholic piety is St. Pio of Pietrelcina, a stigmatic saint around whom well-documented miracle accounts cluster both before and after his death in 1968. St. Pio, who was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2002, has played a huge role in revitalizing and converting many with his extraordinary miracles and signs of God’s grace. So beloved is he that most devotees still call him by the familiar title “Padre” even after his canonization. A very typical story about him is told by a resident of Londonderry, Northern Ireland named Sean Mulrine, whose clinically dead wife, Ann, was restored to life after an encounter with one of Padre Pio’s gloves (used to cover his stigmata) and faithful prayer.

Having suffered a massive stroke while pregnant for their twins, Ann Mulrine was brain dead with a pool of congealed blood filling her cranium. A devotee of Padre Pio named Michael Murray came to Mulrine, told him Padre’s Pio’s story, and urged him to bring the glove to his wife. Mulrine tells what happened next:

We went up to Ann and he said to me: “She might hear you talking, tell her what it is.” So I told her. We put the glove of Padre Pio on Ann’s head. Despite all the tubes, she moved her hand, she grabbed the glove, she brought the glove to her face, blessed herself three times, brought it to her stomach and blessed her stomach with it. She then just fell back into the bed again. This was the first movement we had seen… [Doctors] said: “We don’t know how the event last night happened, we can’t understand it, she’s clinically dead.” That night I went into my room and I couldn’t go through the door for the overpowering smell of roses. It was years later that I was told that this was the invisible presence of Padre Pio.

To cut a long story short, Ann came out of the recovery room, they put her in bed and she opened her eyes and started to talk and move. They took her off the ventilator to see how she would do. They called it a fluke. They said: “We don’t know how this has happened.” Ann got so well that she was eventually brought back to Derry, where the babies were born just a week after she arrived. She just went from strength to strength. She never looked back and she and the two boys were released from hospital on 23 September, which was the anniversary of the death of Padre Pio. (“Padre Pio files: ‘My pregnant wife was clinically brain dead, then we brought in Padre Pio’s glove’” Belfast Telegraph, October 31, )

Mary and Relics

Another sort of relic comes from the Church’s rich legacy of Marian apparitions. This is paradoxical of course, since Mary herself leaves behind no relics, due to her bodily assumption into Heaven. Indeed, one of the difficulties facing critics of the Assumption (who often also lightly dismiss veneration of relics as a combination of mere superstition and early Christian hucksterism) is that the fact that, if the Assumption of Mary is a fairy tale that entered into Christian belief from legends concocted centuries after her death then there would most certainly have been, before the legends arose, a thriving tradition of Marian relics just as there was a thriving tradition about the relics of every other New Testament figure. Not only were saints bones venerated everywhere the Church spread, but Church buildings themselves were typically sited on or near the graves of saints.

That’s why the Church was teeming with relics (some real, some phony) by 451 . Yet . . .

At the Council of Chalcedon in 451, when bishops from throughout the Mediterranean world gathered in Constantinople, Emperor Marcian asked the Patriarch of Jerusalem to bring the relics of Mary to Constantinople to be enshrined in the capitol. The patriarch explained to the emperor that there were no relics of Mary in Jerusalem, that “Mary had died in the presence of the Apostles; but her tomb, when opened later . . . was found empty and so the Apostles concluded that the body was taken up into heaven.” (Father Clifford Stevens, “The Assumption of Mary: A Belief since Apostolic Times,” Catholic Heritage (Heritage, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, July-August 1996)).

Think about this. As the Empire became Christian, relics sometimes took on the character of team mascots, establishing various cities with Most Valuable Player credentials in the court of public opinion. That’s one of the reasons that it really mattered that Peter was buried beneath the High Altar at St. Peter’s Basilica and it’s why King Marcian wanted Mary’s relics.

But here’s the thing: Both Jerusalem and Ephesus laid claim to being the final resting place of the Blessed Virgin. So if the Assumption never happened and only grew from legend centuries later, the Church in both these cities would have claimed her relics in the centuries long before the alleged fantasy of the Assumption was dreamed up.

But, in fact, nobody anywhere ever did that. Christians venerated relics (whether real or phony) of every other contemporary of Mary, from John the Baptist to the twelve apostles. But nobody ever claimed to have the bones of the Blessed Virgin. It’s as though she was assumed bodily into Heaven or something!

That said, many have, however, claimed (with remarkably good evidence at times) that the Blessed Virgin has appeared from Heaven with various messages for the Church militant here on earth. Of course, such claims are not part of the Church’s public revelation and there is no requirement that Catholics accept such private revelation as essential to the Faith. Similarly, the Church does not require us to believe in gravity, the existence of germs, or the inadvisability of playing in traffic. But she does suggest that if common sense points to the truth of a thing, we would be better off paying attention to common sense. In the case of the Church’s approved apparitions, such as at Lourdes, Fatima, or Betania, common sense suggests that we credit the claim that Mary appeared, because the evidence is very strong that she did. In the case of Lourdes, two major relics confront us: the incorrupt body of St. Bernadette and the waters of Lourdes itself. Millions have found inspiration to trust Jesus Christ from both and many thousands have encountered healing, both spiritual and physical, from the miraculous waters.

Eucharistic Miracles and Other Wonders

Related to this is another curious form of relic: the Eucharistic miracle. For instance, on December 8th, 1991 (The Feast of the Immaculate Conception) at Betania, Venezuela Fr. Otty Ossa Aristiza`bal, the Betania Chaplain, consecrated, broke, and consumed a portion of the Host, placing the remaining portions on the paten. When he glanced down again, he was astonished to see blood spurting from it as from a wound. He placed the Host in a Chalice and put it in the Tabernacle until next morning. There he found it still bleeding, so he placed it in a Monstrance and showed to people at Mass. Eyewitnesses saw the Host bleeding and blood accumulating in the bottom of the Monstrance. Some actually filmed it on their camcorders. Bishop Ricardo of Los Teques ordered testing and the blood was, in fact, found to be human blood (AB negative, the same as all other approved Eucharistic miracles, including ones that are centuries old). The Host now resides in the convent of the Augustinian Nuns in Los Teques for safekeeping, adoration, and visitation by pilgrims.

This event is not the first of its kind. The world, in fact, abounds with odd and inexplicable miracles related to relics ranging from the Eucharistic Miracle of Lanciano (a Host that turned into human cardiac tissue in the 8th Century) ,to St. Walburga’s oil, a substance exuded by the bones of 8th Century St. Walburga which has reportedly been used to bring healing to countless people over the centuries, to the odd phenomenon of the blood of St. Januarius, which still liquefies every year on his feast day.

St. Therese of Lisieux

Of course, the vast majority of relics are not about dazzling special effects but about bringing ordinary people into contact with the power of God in the life and soul of the saint who is being venerated. St. Therese of Lisieux, for instance, is not celebrated for her Padre Pio-like career of astounding signs and wonders but for her “Little Way” of simple, child-like obedience. When her relics toured the United States and Britain, thousands turned out to venerate the Little Flower. The sort of miracles that were seen in the presence of her relics were the quiet sort one would expect from this quiet saint: conversion, re-dedication to Christ, the strength to go from the sanctuary and live as a saint in a cubicle, kitchen, or classroom. No stigmata or resurrections resulted. But the power of God was very much present.

Relics have fallen on hard times since the Second Vatican Council, for no real good reason. Theologically, the veneration of relics is perfectly sound. Spiritually, the number of people who have been helped by physical contact with the “riches of his inheritance in the saints” as Paul put it is beyond calculation. Somehow, Catholics in the past forty years have developed a sort off aesthetic bashfulness about relics, as though Catholic devotion is nothing but superstitious mumbo-jumbo belonging to the Dark Ages. But, in fact, is we are going to credit the proposition “the Word became flesh” at all then there is absolutely nothing to fear from the Church’s veneration of relics. Yes, unstable people can approach relics with instability and honor them in disproportion to the honor due to God. But then, the same can be said for one’s work, car, dinner, beer or bank account. The solution to all temptations to magical thinking or idolatry is not to reject the good creature, but to put one’s own heart in order by putting God first. Relics are one of the innumerable gifts God has given to the Church to draw us closer to him through his Son whose own flesh and blood is the very medium of our salvation. Thank God for these gifts and use them wisely and well in Christ Jesus, the Word made flesh.


Follow Mark on Twitter and Facebook

Get updates by email