'There’s a man buried under the altar!': Relics of saints

In the cathedral of my home diocese, there had been a legend for many years that a body was buried under the altar. It was whispered on and speculated about, with people telling each other: “My grandmother remembers seeing it during Lent when she was little.”

Now remember a few things. First, it’s not odd for someone to be buried in a cathedral — many cathedrals have crypts holding the remains of their bishops and cardinals. While our own cathedral, St. Francis Xavier, does not have a crypt, it does hold the grave of the diocese’s second bishop — Francis Xavier Krautbauer, who supervised the cathedral’s construction — buried in the floor near the old site of the confessionals. (The story goes that Bishop Krautbauer asked to be buried there so that those coming from the confessional would walk over his grave and, perhaps, remember him in prayer.)

Secondly, most cathedrals do have parts of people buried in their altars — the relics of saints, most often pieces of bone. Our cathedral has an entire collection of relics, nearly 200. There are at least five or six first-class relics (as in bones or pieces of bone) that rest in reliquaries near the statues representing these particular saints: Agnes, Francis Xavier (the cathedral’s patron), Frances Cabrini, Thérèse of Lisieux, and Anthony of Padua. There is even one purported to be of St. Jude Thaddeus, one of the Twelve. Most of the other relics are pieces of cloth (third-class relics) and rest in the museum downstairs.

As noted earlier, the first churches erected after the early Christian house churches, were built near or directly over the graves of martyrs. Early Christians chose to be buried near either the remains of martyrs or their actual burial sites. This trend can be seen vividly in the Roman catacombs (dating back to the second century), such as the Catacomb of St. Callistus, which contains the remains of at least 50 martyrs, including St. Cecilia, the second-century virgin-martyr.

The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that this preference for being buried near martyrs had both a religious and a personal motive: “It seems to have been felt that when the souls of the blessed martyrs, on the day of general (resurrection), were once more united to their bodies, they would be accompanied in their passage to heaven by those who lay around them and that these last might, on their account, find more ready acceptance with God.” In other words, physical proximity to a martyr’s body might help your own body gain heavenly proximity with them for eternity.

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The link between churches and the physical remains of saints and martyrs continued to grow through the centuries. By 787, the Second Council of Nicaea decreed that all new churches were required to be built with relics of saints placed inside their altars. The council even said that any bishop who did not do so should be deposed.

This law continued for over 1,000 years, until April 6, 1969, and the institution of the second edition of the Roman Missal following the Second Vatican Council. While no longer required, the custom of placing relics of saints in new altars of churches is still considered desirable, and the current General Instruction of the Roman Missal (2003) of the U.S. Catholic bishops notes that “The practice of the deposition of relics of saints, even those not Martyrs, under the altar to be dedicated is fittingly retained. However, care should be taken to ensure the authenticity of such relics.”

Trying to explain this desire to have relics of saints in our places of worship was tackled by St. Thomas Aquinas back in the thirteenth century.

Now it is manifest that we should show honor to the saints of God, as being members of Christ, the children and friends of God, and our intercessors. Wherefore in memory of them, we ought to honor any relics of theirs in a fitting manner: principally their bodies, which were temples, and organs of the Holy Spirit dwelling and operating in them, and are destined to be likened to the body of Christ by the glory of the Resurrection.

Given all this history, along with the natural desire to honor Christ through his saints and the hope to be near the holy ones in eternity, it really should be no surprise to find people believing that at least some parts of bodies were buried under our cathedral’s altar. But could there be a full body underneath it?

Patricia Kasten is an award-winning Catholic journalist. She is the author of "Linking Your Beads: The Rosary's History, Mystery, and Prayers."

This is an excerpt from "Making Sense of Saints: Fascinating Facts About Relics, Patrons, Canonization and More."