THE VENERATION OF RELICS
The name of relic is given to the remains of the saints, as well as to objects that have been closely connected with Christ 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 authentic to which the name of the saint and the episcopal seal is 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 or the saints have been held in high veneration; for instance, the cross of Christ, His tunic, His winding-sheet, 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 in Rome. The seamless coat of Our Lord is in the Cathedral of Treves. (In 1891 it was exposed for six weeks, and two thousand of the faithful came to adore it. During that period eleven authentic cases of miraculous cure took place.) At Argenteuil, near Paris, another garment worn by Our Lord when a child is preserved; it was presented by Charlemagne to the church. The holy winding-sheet is in Turin; Veronica’s veil is in St. Peter’s at Rome. Several other important relics are preserved in the Cathedral of Aix-la-Chapelle. The whole of Palestine is to the Christian a sacred and precious relic; the seven crusades undertaken to recover it from the Saracens prove how much it was valued in the Middle Ages. The principal holy places are: The place of 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 Loretto. At all these places churches were erected, mostly by the 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.
Relics are deserving of veneration for this reason, because the bodies of the saints were temples of the Holy Ghost, and instruments whereby He worked; and they will rise glorious from the grave.
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 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 the bodies of saints still remain incorrupt and supple, as that of St. Teresa, or St. Francis Xavier; some emit a delicious fragrance; from others an oil distils 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 spot where they are deposited.
Even among the Jews relics were regarded with reverence. At the exit from Egypt Moses took Joseph’s bones with him (Exod. xiii. 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 offer the holy sacrifice over their remains. Relics are usually enclosed in costly reliquaries, richly dec orated. 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 sepulchres of the saints. For nineteen 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 worshippers. Any one who had not been thither 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 restored to life on coming in contact with the bones of the prophet Eliseus (4 Kings xiii. 21). Even in their lifetime the bodies of the saints were instrumental in working miracles. By the shadow of St. Peter (Acts v. 15), and by the handkerchiefs or girdles worn by St. Paul (Acts xix. 12), the sick were delivered from their infirmities. But it must be remembered it is not by the relics themselves that these miracles are wrought, but by God. Hence it is not a superstitious act on the part of pious persons when they visit places of pilgrimage, where God is pleased to work wonders by means of relics or images of the saints.