Question: I just returned from a pilgrimage to Quebec City, Canada, where I visited the Shrine of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré. In the basilica, there is a reliquary containing the forearm of St. Anne. I have faith and believe, but I wonder how we could have such a relic and know that it is authentic. Is there some light you can shed on this?
— Jeannine Aucoin, Henniker, New Hampshire
Answer: The veneration of relics is both commended by the Church and regulated by it in Canon Law (Nos. 1186-1190). Among the practices of the Church in more recent centuries is to insist that relics be authenticated. Various persons within the Church do this; for example, the postulator of the cause for sainthood of a man or woman, or the general superior of a religious congregation who has custody of the body of a saint from their community.
They supply a modest number of relics from the body of the saint or blessed and attest to his or her validity. Proper evidence is submitted to one of various Roman curial offices, and a certificate of authenticity is issued from there. In addition, the reliquary in which the relic is placed has a wax seal affixed to it which also has a stamp of authenticity.
In this way the Church seeks to both authenticate the relics in question and protect the faithful from fraudulent claims. The system works reasonably well for the relics of more recent saints. However, it is obvious that the relic of St. Anne, the mother of Mary, would predate any such system.
Clearly the Basilica of St. Anne has ecclesiastical permissions to display the relic, but can we be certain of its authenticity? In a direct sense we cannot, if by certainty is meant direct physical and documented evidence of the origin of the bone, traced directly to the known burial site of the saint.
However, indirect evidence may exist in the documented handing down of the relic from antiquity. Another indirect evidence of authenticity is the healings and conversions that the relic brings by God’s grace. Indeed, there is a long history of numerous healings taking place at the Basilica of St. Anne in Quebec City.
While the faithful are not required to believe in relics, the veneration of them is both permitted and commended by the Church. Many testify to the consoling presence and healing power that relics bring, much like a mother who lost a child, who is consoled by the presence of a lock of that child’s hair and feels somehow connected to that child.
Question: I don’t bless myself with holy water when I enter the church; the water looks dirty. Is this wrong?
— Name withheld, Chicago
Answer: No, you are not required to bless yourself with holy water as you enter the church. It is a reminder of baptism and a request for purification as we enter the holy place of God’s house. You are encouraged to spiritually ask mercy and recall baptism, but the water is not necessary. For obvious reasons, the holy water in the stoups at the church doors needs to be changed frequently. You might wish to speak to your pastor or an usher about the problem. Also, in the past, blessed salt was often mixed with the holy water, to keep down bacteria levels. This practice is still permitted and should be encouraged.
Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.