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Theology for the common man

Relics - an anachronism or a sign of living in faith?

The well-known dictator of Fascist-leaning, but still Catholic, post-WW II Spain, general Francisco Franco (1892-1975), kept in his bedroom a relic of the right arm of St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), considered one of the greatest female mystics of Christianity. The scholars agree that he was indeed a zealous worshipper of this 16th century saint and kept her earthly remains in his room through the end of his own life. Where would he get this idea? Perhaps General Franco went a little overboard with storing the relic in his bedroom, but this type of veneration has not been entirely strange in Catholic tradition. Let us take a look at the practice of worshipping the relics of saints and uncover the reasons why, over time, the Church accepted the practice and decided to propagate it.

The phenomenon of relics
The phenomenon of the relic is explained by the Latin etymology of the word. The Latin term 'reliquiae' refers to the physical remains preserved after the death of a holy person, mostly bones, but also personal artifacts or items with which the individual had contact. These would include the remains, parts of the body (bones, teeth, hair, nails), or objects which were related to the individual either directly (robes, breviary, items of daily use), or indirectly (cloth used for wiping the dead body). The former are referred to as primary relics, the letter as secondary relics. They all gain value because of the holiness of the person’s life, revealing its sanctifying source - God in Jesus Christ. They are not only a tangible remnant of a saint, but also an edifying reminder of his life and visible evidence of the effective grace of God, now enhanced through the saint’s intercession.

A period of time had to go by before the Church recognized this form of devotion and allowed her people to venerate the relics of saints. The obstacles to the practice included: Judaism, whence Christianity originated, which did not recognize any images of Yahweh in contrast to the polytheistic beliefs of neighboring states, the Pagan cult of the dead and the magic powers associated with charms made of their body parts. And lastly, human curiosity and a mental need for more tangible signs of holiness, including healing, rather than faith alone and the exemplary lives of the saints. The Church, in reckoning with human nature, allowed for the worship of relics, albeit it had to remain vigilant to guide it in the proper direction.

The Origins
The reverence of relics began right after the end of Christian persecutions in the Roman Empire, when the Edict of Milan proclaimed Christianity as a state religion (313). Over time, collections of bones of martyrs buried in catacombs became the yeast for their worship. Everyone wished to be buried near a holy martyr of the faith and their graves attracted throngs of pilgrims. Later, temples were built above their remains with the main altar set directly above the martyr’s grave. And thus „the relic became the altar of God himself” (St. Augustine). The veneration of relics gained popularity due to the policies of the emperors, who erected impressive basilicas above the graves of the saints and the uncovering of the Holy Cross relic, found as a result of a special crusade to Jerusalem by the Emperor’s mother, St. Helena. Towns that did not have a martyr’s body began to import relics and the bodies began to be partitioned and traded in order to satisfy the demand (5th century). This was the beginning of the era of the relic, whose popularity peaked in the Middle Ages.

To protect the relics from being totally partitioned, secondary relics, or surrogates were introduced. These included cloth in which the relic was wrapped, fabric laid on the grave, oil used in the graveside lamps, water from local wells, etc. There were incidents of relics being counterfeited, stolen, traded, desecrated, or purchased for superstitious or magical uses, since saints were believed to be able to heal and save lives from fires and plagues; oaths were sworn to and peace treaties signed and sealed over the relics. We know of the case of Polish king Boleslaw Chrobry, who ransomed the relics of St. Adalbert after his martyrdom and of the peace treaty with Emperor Otto III signed at Adalbert’s grave in Gniezno in 1000 AD. There was a threat that relics would be worshipped for their own sake, rather than for God’s.

The relics’ life
To emphasize the true worship of God through the relics, the Holy See introduced the Church practice of acknowledging the sainthood of individuals. This was done through the process of canonization or beatification with the ceremony of 'elevatio', i.e. the exhumation of a saint’s remains, which were then transported to the site of worship ('translatio') and displayed for veneration ('depositio') by the altar. Since then, the places where the relics were stored became destinations of numerous pilgrimages, ensuring prosperity and wealth, visited even more frequently with reports of healings around their vicinity. This again posed a threat of commercialization.

The great popularity and demand for relics resulted in the relics being pulled from beneath the altars, partitioned and placed in special vessels called reliquaries. They were made of different materials and had different shapes, depending on the affluence of the buyer and prominence of the dead. They were shaped into towers, domes, vases, and subsequently the figure of the deceased; inlaid with pearls, precious stones which symbolized the virtues of the individual. Monstrances were used for storing fragments of partitioned body parts. The monstrances were hand- or head-shaped. They were displayed for public veneration and carried around during processions and celebrations. There were plenty of grand altars, chapels and cathedral confessions where the opulent reliquaries were displayed to commemorate the deceased saints. Some social classes, willing to maintain the prestige of their churches and courts, gathered greater numbers of relics, which created a source of pride and shaped the national identity of some states, like France or Germany. This may well explain why General Franco was so attached to the relics of St. Theresa of Avila, the great Spanish mystic.

No relic worship without saint worship
In the 15th and 16th centuries, under Protestant critique, relic worship evolved. Altars were accompanied by glass caskets with mummified corpses of saints, if no body was available, a wooden or wax replica was used instead. Smaller relics were displayed in glass cases next to altars. These have survived until the present time.

Today’s Church has learned the lesson and approaches relics with caution, requiring her people to view them with a proper vantage point in mind. Relics are the sign of God’s grace sanctifying people throughout the ages and originating in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. The saints preserved in their relics are proof of God's grace living in them resulting in heroic virtues worthy of following and sacrificing one’s life for. They also serve as intermediaries with God, interceding for various human matters, this is why they receive sufficient respect through a separate veneration, under the unified redemptive intercession of Jesus Christ. The Church continues to point out new examples of saints, selecting them from our contemporaries to showcase the power of their faith and love. In the devotion to relics, people show respect for and draw from them the power of faith to sustain them in their own lives and the lives of their loved ones.

Canon Law on relics
Can. 1190 § 1. It is absolutely forbidden to sell sacred relics. § 2. 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.