Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 10, 2001
Is it OK to verenate relics?
By SR. LOUISE ZDUNICH, NDC
I see in our parish bulletin that the relics of St. Thérèse of Lisieux will be coming here soon (Sept. 29-Oct. 1). I haven't heard much about relics for years. Please refresh my memory.
Relics are generally part of the body of a saint (sometimes called first class or major relics) or something saints used in their lifetime such as pieces of clothing or something that has touched the body of a saint. Relics are kept in reliquaries which are more or less elaborate containers, their size dependent on the relic's size.
For a period of time, there was an emphasis on relics that was unhealthy, even superstitious. The attitude was reversed with Vatican II and now, the major emphasis is on Christ. But that does not mean that venerating relics is wrong.
In a sense, the use of relics is mentioned in Scripture. In the Gospels we read of the woman who is healed by touching the hem of Jesus' garment. In Acts 19:11, we are told that "God did extraordinary miracles through Paul so that when the handkerchiefs or aprons that touched his (Paul's) skin were brought to the sick their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them."
We can say that we venerate relics of loved ones. We respect and honour their likeness in photos. Grandparents' walls are covered with pictures of their children and grandchildren. We carry pictures of people who are dear to us in our wallets.
And when someone close to us dies, we respect their remains and possessions. Souvenirs and heirlooms are highly prized, even if they carry little or no monetary value.
The early Christians, initially, a small group in a hostile world, were a tightly knit family of God. When some were martyred for their faith, their place of burial was honoured.
The catacombs in Rome were underground burial places for persecuted Christians, as well as places of prayer and Eucharistic celebration on the tombs of martyrs. From there arose the custom of placing relics of saints in altar stones upon which Mass was celebrated.
Originally, each town kept a list of its own saints and read their names during the Eucharistic Prayer. In the fifth century, churches began to borrow saints' names as well as relics from one another. These relics were considered an assurance of special protection and so people began seeing them as charms.
As demand increased, relics multiplied. The result was that they were not always authentic.
Saints are exemplars of true Christian values. They are like our family. So, it is normal for us to venerate their relics. But care must be exercised that we not treat relics as good luck charms.
History reveals how this can come about. In the Middle Ages, invocation of saints began to replace imitation and veneration. And the number of saints' feast days multiplied so that they became more important than the cycle of the mysteries of our salvation.
During that time, people who were in dire need because of wars and diseases became obsessed with miracles. Relics became their assurance of miracles. As they no longer understood Latin, people became passive observers at the Eucharistic liturgy but they could relate to relics. Shrines filled with relics were more important to them than churches and the Eucharist.
Already by the fifth century, Church authorities warned against superstitious practices in veneration of relics. It appears that we still need to be cautioned about the inappropriate use of relics. Recently I read that relics are being bought and sold on the Internet.
It is wrong, of course, to use holy things in this disrespectful way, even if we are selling only the reliquary (the case). The underlying problem is the superstitious belief associated with relics, against which we must guard when we promote their veneration.
But the Church approves the appropriate veneration of saints and their relics. We continue the practice of using saints' names for those being baptized and confirmed, for churches and other religious institutions. We also see many examples of cities named in honour of the saints and other religious elements by earlier faith-filled people.
The lives of saints can be an example for us as we try to live the Gospel in our own culture. Reflecting on their lives can stimulate our efforts to follow Jesus. St. Thérèse is a good example in this respect.
We can also continue to ask them to pray for us.
As we can see and touch relics, they make the saints more immediate and meaningful to us. With the coming of the relics of St. Thérèse, who lived only a century ago, we will almost feel her presence among us. This presence can stimulate us to learn how she became a saint at such a young age.
Do you know why she was canonized only 28 years after her death? Do you know why she was so loved that her autobiography became a "best seller?"
Do you know why this unknown young sister who lived in a cloistered convent was named the principle patron of all missions on an equal basis with a great missionary, St. Francis Xavier?" Do you know why this relatively uneducated young woman (she died at 24) more recently was named a doctor of the Church?
There are many profound lessons in the writings of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, not the least is her conviction that God is mercy and love rather than a severe judge (the prevailing view of God in her time). There is so much to learn from her reflections upon the Scriptures.
We must not let this event pass us by. Let us use it as a starting point to better understand who we are as Catholics. Let this special privilege of seeing St. Thérèse's relics serve as a spark that ignites in us the fire of her love of God.