How relevant are relics to ordinary Catholics today? To answer this question, we look to two experts who have an understanding of the role of relics in the Church.
“The life of relics is very alive and well in the Church today,” said Father Gregory Gresko, who is a monk at the Mary Mother of the Church Abbey in Richmond, Virginia, and who was chaplain of the St. John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, D.C., for several years.
“I often think of St. John Paul II and of his relics, which are all around the world,” said Father Gresko, whose academic work has focused on the theology of John Paul II. “I’ve seen, in person, how those relics have increased the devotion of the faithful in the Church.”
Father Gresko noted that the shrine contains two first-class relics of the late pontiff: a first-class relic of John Paul II’s blood, which is contained in a glass ampoule at the center of an ornate reliquary, and a piece of the blood-stained cassock worn by the saint during the assassination attempt in St. Peter’s square.
East and West
Anthony E. Clark, an archivist for the Diocese of Spokane, Washington, emphasizes that relics are especially “helpful on feast days, when they can be venerated” and bring a profound focus on the life of a particular saint. Clark, who is studying to be a deacon in the Byzantine rite of the Catholic Church, noted that people who possess relics often lend them to churches on feast days.
“The relics are incensed. In the East, relics are venerated and kissed,” he said. “They are like a step above an icon in terms of their value. An icon is a window to the holy; a relic is the actual remains of someone who is in heaven and is glorified. To have the remains of the saints gives a special connection to those who are praying for us in the beatific vision.”
Clark said relics “are treated a bit differently in the East than in the West; there’s a greater interest, in general, in the East, where they are used often in the Divine Liturgy.”
An important part of such use is “paying attention to the liturgical calendar; there is greater integration of the veneration of relics and the specific feast days,” Clark said.
Both Clark and Father Gresko point out that there are practical challenges in dealing with relics, including ascertaining authenticity.
“People used to write the bishop,” Clark said, “and relics would be distributed with certificates and seals. But that is not as common today. Sadly, many people get them on eBay and on other online sites. Relics, of course, should never be sold.”
There are various religious orders and apostolates that makes relics available to parishes for feast days and special occasions. Clark believes it has been mostly the laity and religious orders who have been at the forefront of keeping relics in their proper place in the Church.
Father Gresko has witnessed many moments of intense devotion and veneration with relics.
“It is a strong call to prayer,” he said of the public exposition of relics. “When I was in New York [at St. Patrick’s Cathedral] last summer with the vial of the blood of John Paul II, over 15,000 people came to venerate it over the weekend.”
Father Gresko said the reason the Church and the faithful continue to place relics in such high regard is because they are a “tangible reminder of those saints and our own call to holiness.
“The reason we pay attention to relics is because there is a real presence of the saints who are united with Christ in heaven, and so we can ask for the direct intercession of those saints,” he said. “Relics bring to the fore the intercessory prayer of saints (and) bring to mind the reality of the Communion of Saints and our place in that communion.”
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.
|Rules for Relics
The Church’s understanding of the supernatural graces offered through Christ, the reality of the Communion of Saints, and the nature of real relics has not changed since the Council of Trent. The Code of Canon Law, for instance, states:
◗ Relics are supposed to help make us holy. “To foster the sanctification of the people of God, the Church commends to the special and filial reverence of the Christian faithful the Blessed Mary ever Virgin, Mother of God, whom Christ established as the mother of all people, and promotes the true and authentic veneration of the other saints whose example instructs the Christian faithful and whose intercession sustains them” (No. 1186).
◗ Not just anyone can be venerated. “Only those servants of God whom the authority of the Church has recorded in the list of the saints or the blessed” can be reverenced through public veneration.
◗ Relic idolatry is to be avoided. “ The practice of displaying sacred images in churches for the reverence of the faithful is to remain in effect. Nevertheless, they are to be exhibited in moderate number and in suitable order so that the Christian people are not confused nor occasion given for inappropriate devotion” (No. 1188).
◗ Sacred relics may not be sold. “Relics of great significance and other relics honored with great reverence by the people cannot be alienated validly in any manner or transferred permanently without the permission of the Apostolic See” (No. 1190 §2).