Relics

“Saints alive!”

Despite the great personal significance they can have for the faithful, relics have declined in prominence as part of Catholic practices in recent years. The relics stored here come from various sources—donated to the archdiocese by private individuals, left behind in wills, or removed from churches, convents or other facilities that have fallen into disuse.

… “The relic of St. Padre Pio that I wear was given to me as a gift this past March when I became a cardinal from a friend,” O’Malley wrote in an e-mail. “The relic is a piece of cloth that was touched to the blood of St. Pio’s stigmata when he was alive in Italy.” Pio was considered to be the first Catholic priest to develop stigmata, wounds resembling those of the crucified Jesus, when they appeared in 1918.

Like O’Malley, St. Pio was a member of the Capuchin order, giving the artifact special meaning for him. But relics also serve a broader purpose in the church, as tangible reminder s of those who went before in the faith.

“Relics remind us that the saints were human and walked this earth living out their vocation as religious, married persons, students, doctors/nurses, parents, poor, rich, and everything in between,” O’Malley wrote. “The relics of saints connect us with those who persevered in holiness to do the will of the Lord each day.”

It’s relatively rare that relics are held by private individuals, although some still remain in circulation, and there are even some small private collections.

More commonly, local parishes maintain relics on their grounds, often enshrined in elaborate reliquaries. The archdiocese reconfiguration plan has occasionally displaced such relics, but Kathleen Heck, the reconfiguration coordinator, has helped find new homes for the sacred objects.

The bottom line of the article is that because of Vatican II, relics are not held in as high esteem by Catholics anymore and are being relegated to archives and such. I don’t know if that’s true. In fact, I think interest in relics is increasing, not decreasing, at least in my experience.

People who are re-discovering their Catholic faith (or discovering it for the first time) are often fascinated by these physical manifestations of the Communion of the Saints. Some people are creeped out by bones and bits of dead people, but in many ways it’s like keeping a photo of a beloved aunt on your mantle or a lock of hair in a pendant. When I was at Franciscan University in Steubenville, many students either kept or were very interested in relics.

As for whether it’s rare for private individuals to own them, personally I have relics from St. Faustina, Bl. Mother Teresa, and Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati. I received the St. Faustina relic (3rd class) from some sisters of her order who visited Steubenville. The Mother Teresa relic (1st class) came from some Missionaries of Charity who I helped when they came to my parish for a series of Scott Hahn talks. And the Pier Giorgio relic came from his niece in appreciation for my efforts spreading his devotion.

Relics are often misunderstood and derided as superstition, but a new appreciation for them should be encouraged. They are an important part of our faith.

Update: Deacon John Bresnahan made a point so good in the comments below that I wish I’d remembered it and so I want to highlight it here:

The public certainly has not lost its interest in relics—it just takes something special to attract people’s attention. I was totally surprised to see the hordes of people who formed a steady line all day and evening at the local parish church that hosted the heart of St. John Vianney—and the church pews of the big church were constantly full of people praying. Even more impressive was the number of teen-agers and young adults who came and were asking all sorts of intelligent questions about St. John and aspects of the Catholic Faith. A few years before, unexpected huge crowds of people turned out for the relics of St. Therese of Liseux. Let’s have more of these special visitations of famous or popular saints.

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Written by
Domenico Bettinelli
6 comments
  • I used to have a first class relic of St Thomas Aquinas when I was in high school.  I would carry it on my person in order to venerate it, but that turned out to be an ill-conceived practice as I lost it one day when I went out for lunch!  I have never ceased to feel like an idiot for losing that precious bit of bone!  Hopefully, but the grace of God, it ended up in the hands of someone who truly needed it.

  • The public certainly has not lost its interest in relics—it just takes something special to attract people’s attention. I was totally surprised to see the hordes of people who formed a steady line all day and evening at the local parish church that hosted the heart of St. John Vianney—and the church pews of the big church were constantly full of people praying. Even more impressive was the number of teen-agers and young adults who came and were asking all sorts of intelligent questions about St. John and aspects of the Catholic Faith. A few years before, unexpected huge crowds of people turned out for the relics of St. Therese of Liseux. Let’s have more of these special visitations of famous or popular saints.

  • My husband is a Thomas More scholar, and for a wedding present I gave him a 3rd class relic of St. Thomas. He seemed more puzzled by it than anything at first (his mother was a convert and they never had anything like relics around when he was growing up), but then he realized what it was and began to value it. It gives him a tangible connection to a great writer, scholar, statesman – and saint.

    I also remember the visit of the relics of Therese of Lisieux – the local media (in Dallas/Fort Worth) had a hard time reporting it, they couldn’t believe so many people had come out to see this! I believe so many people came that they added an extra day in Arlington. We also had a visit of a piece of the tilma of St. Juan Diego a couple of years after that at the Cathedral Santiago de Guadalupe in Dallas. It was a teeny, tiny sliver that the guardians of the tilma at the Shrine of the Guadalupe in Mexico City had cut off and send around, along with an amazing photographic reproduction of the tilma itself, with the image of our Lady on it. They had visitation at the Cathedral for, I think, three nights, and it was pretty full every night, with both anglos and Latinos. Even though it was just a tiny sliver of cloth, it was still very moving . . .

  • What the article could have said:

    “It’s extremely common for relics to be in private hands, but I couldn’t give my editors any definite numbers. Darn those census takers for not asking the right questions!”

    I don’t think anybody in my family has any relics (unless you count Holy Water From Famous Places). But as soon as I got on the Internet, I found out that everybody from the big cities had, like, a ton. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t know this when I was in the SCA, as I had a thing for reliquaries back then and would probably have lusted for a relic in vain. OTOH, my first SCA group probably could have used a bit of saintly intervention, and so could most of the non-SCA people I knew back then…. smile

    I wouldn’t know how to get hold of a relic if my life depended on it, frankly. Unless you count the folks who are working Solanus Casey’s cause, and who will send you third-class relics. Which I guess does count.

  • Well….I still have a hard time with relics. Maybe it’s because I’m Jewish and we have a real issue with the burial of bodies. St John Vianney’s heart really freaked me out. I don’t know….but I’ll leave the relics to others for the moment.

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