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Catholic Doctrine and Devotion Series

Holy Relics

It has long been customary, especially in churches which possessed large collections of relics, to keep one general feast in commemoration of all the Saints whose memorials are there preserved.  An Office and Mass for this purpose is found in the supplement to the Roman Missal and Breviary.   The Office is generally assigned to the fifth of November.  Before the Protestant Revolution, it was celebrated on the Sunday after the translation of the relics of St. Thomas of Canterbury, July 7, and it was kept as a greater double "wherever relics are preserved or where the bodies of dead persons are buried, for although Holy Church and her minister observe no solemnities in their honor, the glory they enjoy with God is known to Him alone."

The name of relic is given to the remains of the Saints, as well as to objects that have been closely connected with Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary, or the Saints.

The body of a Saint is a relic, or any portion of it, even the most minute particle of bone.  These relics are placed beneath or upon our altars; they also pass into the possession of private persons.   Those only are considered authentic to which the name of the saint and the episcopal seal are attached.  The relics themselves must not be sold, but this prohibition does not apply to the case containing them.  From time immemorial, those objects also which are closely connected with Our Lord, Our Blessed Mother, or the Saints have been held in high veneration; for instance, the Cross of Christ, His Tunic, His Winding-sheet (or Holy Shroud), the Manger wherein the Infant Jesus was laid, Veronica's Veil, etc.  The Holy Cross was discovered by the Empress Helena in the year 325, and a portion of it is in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem.  A part of the Manger is in the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore (Our Lady of the Snows) in Rome.   The seamless robe of Our Lord is in the Cathedral of Trier in Germany.  (In 1891 it was exposed for six weeks, and thousands of the faithful came to venerate it.   During that period, eleven authentic cases of miraculous cures took place.)   At Argenteuil, near Paris, another garment worn by Our Lord, when a child, is preserved; it was presented by St. Karl the Great to this church.  The Holy Shroud is in Turin; Veronica's Veil is in St. Peter's at Rome.  Several other important relics are preserved in the Cathedral and Basilica of Our Lady, built by St. Karl the Great in Aachen, Germany.  The whole of Palestine is to the Christian a sacred and precious relic; the seven crusades undertaken to recover it from the diabolical Saracens prove how much it was valued in the Middle Ages. The principal holy places are: the place of the Crucifixion and the Sepulchre on Mount Calvary; the scene of Our Lord's Agony and the spot whence He ascended on Mount Olivet; the Cenacle on Mount Sion, His Birthplace at Bethlehem and the Holy House of Nazareth, now at Loreto.  At all of these places churches were erected, mostly by the blessed Emperor Constantine, or his mother, St. Helena.  The garments worn by martyrs and the instruments of their execution, the spots where eminent Saints were born or are buried, have always been held in veneration.  It was formerly the custom to erect churches and altars for the celebration of divine worship over places thus hallowed, especially where the Saints are interred.

The teaching of the Catholic Church with regard to the veneration of relics is summed up in a decree of the Council of Trent, which enjoins on Bishops and other pastors the duty to instruct their flocks that "the holy bodies of holy martyrs and of others now living with Christ -- which bodies were living members of Christ and 'the temple of the Holy Ghost', and which are by Him to be raised to eternal life and to be glorified, are to be venerated by the faithful, for through these many benefits are bestowed by God on men."  The Roman Catechism drawn up at the instance of the Council of Trent recalls the marvels witnessed at the tombs of the martyrs, where "the blind and cripples are restored to health, the dead recalled to life and demons expelled from the bodies of men."

The Jews regarded a dead body as an unclean thing, but the Christian looks upon it with respect, as having been the dwelling-place of the Holy Ghost, and as being the seed whence the immortal, glorified body will spring at the final resurrection.  Moreover, as St. Jerome remarks, by honoring the Saints, we adore Him for Whom they died.  God Himself shows them honor, for by their medium He works miracles.  Many bodies, or portions of bodies of Saints still remain incorrupt and supple; some emit a delicious fragrance; from others an oil distills, possessed of healing properties.  "God," says St. John Chrysostom, "has divided the possession of the saints between Himself and us; He has taken their souls to Himself, and has left their bodies for us."

1. We honor the relics of the saints by preserving them with reverence, and visiting the places where they are deposited.

Even among the Israelites relics were regarded with reverence.  At the exit from Egypt, Moses took Joseph's bones with him (Exod. 13:19).  The early Christians also had great respect for relics.  When St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, was torn to pieces by lions, two of his companions came by night and gathered up his bones, carrying them to Antioch.  When St. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, was burned alive, the Christians collected his ashes, valuing them more than jewels.  At an early date it was customary to erect chapels or altars above the tombs of martyrs, and to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass over their remains.  Relics are usually enclosed in costly reliquaries, richly decorated.  It is out of respect for the dead that we lay wreaths on their coffins, and deck their graves with flowers.   Relics of great value, such as the portions of the True Cross, or of the Manger at Bethlehem, are encased in gold or silver; likewise some of the bodies of the Saints.   From time immemorial pilgrimages have been made to the tombs of the Saints.   For twenty centuries the faithful have been wont to visit the tombs of the Apostles in Rome, or the holy places in Palestine.  The early Christians flocked in such numbers to the Holy Land that the places in Jerusalem were thronged with devout worshipers.  Anyone who had not been there esteemed himself a worse Christian than his neighbors.  "We visit the sepulchres of the saints," says St. John Chrysostom, "and prostrate ourselves there in order to obtain some grace which we need."

2. We obtain many blessings from God by venerating relics.

Relics are a source whence spiritual benefits come to us from God.  St. John Damascene says: "As water gushed from the rock in the wilderness at God's command, so by His will blessings flow from the relics of the Saints."  Where the remains of Saints or martyrs are interred, the snares of the devil lose their potency and obstinate maladies are healed.  St. Augustine relates numerous cures effected by the relics of St. Stephen in Africa, besides the raising from the dead of two children.  In the Old Testament we read of a dead man having been accidentally let down into the sepulchre of Eliseus, "when it touched the bones of the Prophet, instantly came to life." (4 Kings 13:21) Even in their lifetime the bodies of the Saints were instrumental in working miracles.  By the shadow of St. Peter , and by the handkerchiefs, or girdles worn by St. Paul (Acts 19:12), the sick were delivered from their infirmities.  If the clothes, the kerchiefs, if the very shadow of the Saints before they departed from this life banished diseases and restored strength, who can deny that God works the same by the sacred ashes, the bones, and other relics of the Saints. But it must be remembered that it is not by the relics themselves that these miracles are wrought, but by God.  Hence, it is a source of extraordinary grace for pious persons when they visit places of pilgrimage, where God is pleased to work wonders by means of relics or images of the Saints. For this reason the Holy Fathers exhort every faithful Catholic to make at least one pilgrimage during their lifetime to the Shrines of Our Lord, Our Blessed Mother, and the Saints.

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