Wednesday, September 26, 2007


One of my parishioners was a little shocked by a story in the one of the papers about the cassock of Pope John Paul being shredded and “relics” being given to the faithful, apparently one Vatican bishop wanted to discourage the practice; he claimed it was something from the Middle Ages. It goes much further back than that.

The use of relics has some, although limited, basis in sacred Scripture. In 2 Kings 2:9-14, the prophet Elisha picked up the mantle of Elijah after Elijah had been taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. With this Elisha struck the water of the Jordan, which then parted so that he could cross. In another passage (13:20-21), some people hurriedly bury a dead man in the grave of Elisha, "but when the man came in contact with the bones of Elisha, he came back to life and rose to his feet." In the Acts of the Apostles we read, "Meanwhile, God worked extraordinary miracles at the hands of Paul. When handkerchiefs or cloths which had touched his skin were applied to the sick, their diseases were cured and evil spirits departed from them" (19:11-12). In these three passages, a reverence was given to the actual body or clothing of these very holy people who were indeed God's chosen instruments—Elijah, Elisha and St. Paul. Indeed, miracles were connected with these "relics"—not that some magical power existed in them, but just as God's work was done through the lives of these holy men, so did His work continue after their deaths. Likewise, just as people were drawn closer to God through the lives of these holy men, so did they (even if through their remains) inspire others to draw closer even after their deaths. This perspective provides the Church's understanding of relics.

I have often wondered whether the detail in the Gospels regarding the two clothes in the tomb is reference to two relics prized by the early Church; remember Peter’s house at Capernaum seems to have been a shrine from the first century onwards.

At the martyrdom of St Polycarp, “who was a disciple of John, who was a disciple of Jesus, the Christ” people brought cloths to soak up his blood and seem to have taken them home, his body in a tomb that became a place of prayer and pilgrimage. From very beginning of Christianity the bodies of the Apostles, especially Peter and Paul at Rome, seem to have been treated with great veneration. Even in cultures that cremated their dead Christian opted for burial, the belief in Resurrection of the body, seemed to ensure that the dead, especially the faithful dead were a direct link with Christ, the eastward alignment of bodies invariable identifies them as being Christian. The bodies of the Martyrs most especially were venerated; it seems that they were seen as “making up in [their] own bodies whatever was lacking in the sufferings of Christ”. I am sure that their early connection with the Holy Eucharist and the consecration of altars is part of an early affirmation of, if not the Real Presence, the Real re-Presentation of the Suffering of Calvary.


gemoftheocean said...

And not forgetting Luke 8:
"43 And a woman who had a hemorrhage for twelve years, and could not be healed by anyone, 44 came up behind Him and touched the fringe of His cloak, and immediately her hemorrhage stopped. 45 And Jesus said, “Who is the one who touched Me?” And while they were all denying it, Peter said, “Master, the people are crowding and pressing in on You.” 46 But Jesus said, “Someone did touch Me, for I was aware that power had gone out of Me.” 47 When the woman saw that she had not escaped notice, she came trembling and fell down before Him, and declared in the presence of all the people the reason why she had touched Him, and how she had been immediately healed. 48 And He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”

Like all sacramentals, the use of relics and their benefit would depend on the disposition of the user.

Some years back when my mother and I made a pilgrimage to St. Therese of Lisieux's house, I was struck by a display of the items she owned as a child. The clothes, toys she played with (some of which she had described in her autobio) I was struck by how commonplace such items were - some not unlike the toys I or my parents or grandparents might have had. It's a very human need or desire to have some tangible reminders of someone's presence on earth. It reminds you that those now in heaven once dealt with matters of the flesh, just as you do today. Saints aren't just pictures on a holy card, but just as they aspired to sainthood, feet planted firmly on earth, we must and can do the same.

Anonymous said...

i love relics & despite some against Pope John Paul & praying for his canonisation i would love a relic of his..

Hebdomadary said...

I have a nice medium sized pectoral crucifix with a 2nd class (usually - as in this case - a piece of cloth associated with the saint) relic of St. Anthony Maria Claret in a little concealed compartment on the back, with a door that opens. If only I were a bishop.

pelerin said...

The CWN site you point to mentions that relics can never be bought and sale of such items were eventually banned from E bay. However, as a regular visitor to Flea markets both large and small in Paris I am often saddened to see relics on sale often at very high prices. 'Granny' has obviously died and her treasures have ended up, unwanted, being sold to one of these dealers. There is a cabinet containing several small reliquaries at the famous market at Clignancourt. I have also seen church vestments for sale and last year was horrified to see what was described as 'a tabernacle door' sitting among the junk. Ancient church statues (often riddled with woodworm!) also appear from time to time - all very sad.

Fr Ray Blake said...

This parish welcomes the gift of relics, from any source.