Today is the Feast of the Holy Relics.
During the last session of the Council of Trent (1559–63), the Church spelled out her teaching on the veneration of relics. “[T]he holy bodies of the holy martyrs now living with Christ-which bodies were the 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. The Council also decreed that “in the invocation of Saints the veneration of relics and the sacred use of images, every superstition shall be removed and all filthy lucre abolished…the visitation of relics must not be by any perverted into revelings and drunkenness….to secure a proper check upon abuses of this kind, no new miracles are to be acknowledged or new relics recognized unless the bishop of the diocese has taken cognizance and approved thereof.” (2)
By relics of the Saints we mean all that remains of them after their death — their bones, their ashes, their clothing and other objects used by them. Enemies of the Church have condemned the cult of the relics of the Saints as being borrowed from pagan customs and without apostolic origin. The decision of the Council of Trent suffices to show the falsehood and bad faith of their reasoning. That Council, in effect, decreed quite otherwise, that the bodies of the martyrs and other Saints, who were the living members of Jesus Christ and the temples of the Holy Spirit, must be honored by the faithful, and that through them God grants a great many benefits to the living. Its decision was based on the usage already established in the first century and which has remained constant in the Church, as well as on the teaching of the Fathers and Councils.
Feast of the Holy Relics
Adapted from The Liturgical Year by Abbot Gueranger
Had we angels’ eyes, we should see the earth as a vast field sown with seed for the resurrection. The death of Abel made the first furrow, and, ever since, the sowing has gone on unceasingly the wide world over. This land of labor and of suffering, what treasures it already holds laid up in its bosom! And what a harvest for Heaven, when the Sun of Justice, suddenly darting forth His rays, shall cause to spring up as suddenly from the soil the elect wheat, ripe for glory! No wonder that the Church Herself blesses and superintends the laying of the precious grain in the earth.
But the Church is not content to be always sowing. Sometimes, as though impatient of delay, She raises from the ground the chosen seed She had sown therein. Her infallible discernment preserves Her from error; and, disengaging from the soil the immortal germ, She forestalls the glory of the future. She encloses the treasure in gold or precious materials, carries it in triumph, invites the multitudes to come and reverence it; or She raises new temples to the name of the blessed ones, and assigns them the highest honor of reposing under the altar, whereon She offers to God the Tremendous Sacrifice.
“Let your charity understand,” explains St. Augustine, “it is not to St. Stephen we raise an altar in this place; but of St. Stephen’s relics we make an altar to God. God loves these altars; and if you ask the reason: Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His Saints (Ps. 115: 15). In obedience to God the invisible soul has quitted its visible dwelling. But God preserves this dwelling; He is glorified by the honor we pay to this lifeless flesh; and, clothing it with the might of His Divinity, He gives it the power of working miracles.” Hence the origin of pilgrimages to the shrines of the Saints.
“Christian people,” says St. Gregory of Nyssa, “wherefore are you assembled here? A tomb has no attractions; nay, the sight of its contents inspires horror. Yet, see what eagerness to approach this sepulcher! So great an object of desire it is, that a little of the dust from around it is esteemed a gift of great price. As to beholding the remains it conceals, that is a rare favor and an enviable one, as those can testify who enjoy the privilege: they embrace the holy body as though it were yet alive, they press their lips and their eyes upon it, shedding tears of love and devotion. What emperor ever received such honor?”
“Emperors!” rejoins St. John Chrysostom, “as the porters at their gates, such have they become with regard to poor fishermen. The son of the great Constantine deemed he could not pay a higher honor to his father, than to procure him a place of sepulture in the porch of the Fisherman of Galilee.” And again, concluding his commentary on St. Paul’s admirable Epistle to the Romans, the golden-mouthed Doctor exclaims: “And now, who will grant me to prostrate myself at St. Paul’s sepulcher, to contemplate the ashes of that body which, suffering for us, filled up what was wanting of the sufferings of Christ? The dust of that mouth which spoke boldly before kings, and, showing what St. Paul was, revealed the Lord of St. Paul? The dust of that heart, truly the heart of the whole world, more lofty than the heavens, more vast than the universe, as much the heart of Christ as of St. Paul, and wherein might be read the book of grace graven by the Holy Ghost? Oh, that I might see the remains of the hands which wrote those Epistles; of the eyes which were struck with blindness and recovered their sight for our salvation; of the feet which traversed the whole earth! Yes; I would fain contemplate the tomb where repose those instruments of justice and of light, these members of Christ, this temple of the Holy Ghost. O venerable body, which, together with that of St. Peter, protects Rome more securely than all ramparts!”
In spite of such teachings as these, the heretics of the 16h century profaned the tombs of the Saints, under pretext of bringing us back to the doctrine of our forefathers. In contradiction to these strange “reformers,” the Council of Trent expressed the unanimous testimony of tradition in the following definition, which sets forth the theological reasons of the honor paid by the Church to the relics of the Saints:
“Veneration ought to be shown by the faithful to the bodies of the Martyrs and other Saints, who live with Jesus Christ. For they were His living members and the temples of the Holy Ghost; He will raise them up again to eternal life and glory; and through them God grants many blessings to mankind. Therefore, those who say that the relics of the Saints are not worthy of veneration, that it is useless for the faithful to honor them, that it is vain to visit the memorials or monuments of the Saints in order to obtain their aid, are absolutely to be condemned; and, as they have already been long ago condemned [by the Second Council of Nicaea], the Church now condemns them once more” (Council of Trent, Session 25).
Our ancestors looked upon holy relics as their greatest riches, the treasure par excellence of their cities. “Dew of heaven and fatness of the earth,” the blessings of this world and of the next, seemed to distil from the bodies of the Saints. Their presence was a check to hostile armies, as well as to the legions of Hell; it guarded morals, fostered faith, and encouraged prayer in the heart of cities, to which they attracted as great crowds as now flock to our centers of pleasure. And with what vigilance was cherished the blessed deposit, the loss whereof would have been considered the greatest of public calamities!
“I have here, my brethren,” says Cardinal Pie, “to unfold to you a marvelous design of God, Whom Scripture calls wonderful in His Saints. The Lord Jesus, Who said to His disciples: ‘Go ye and teach,’ frequently takes pleasure in sending them forth again after their death; and He makes use of their apostolate from beyond the tomb, to carry the blessings of grace to other nations besides those whom they evangelized in life. ‘I have appointed you,’ He said, ‘that you should go and should bring forth fruit.’ In obedience to this command the Saints, even after having reached the blessed term of their mortal pilgrimage, consent to become wayfarers once more. Had I leisure to recount to you all the posthumous wanderings of our illustrious Pontiffs and wonder-workers—for instance, the repeated journeys of our own Sts. Hilary and Martin during more than ten centuries—I should, though captivating your attention by narratives full of interest, run the risk of wearying you by the length of my discourse.”
Amen, amen, I say to you, he that believeth in Me, the works that I do he also shall do, and greater than these shall he do (John 14: 12). Our Lord was speaking of His Saints and disciples, who would believe in Him so fully as to place their earthly happiness in poverty, hunger, mourning, and persecution. His word was to be accomplished in them during life; but frequently it was to be still more manifested after death, in the power retained by their relics of driving away demons, healing all diseases, and obtaining every grace. It is not only from the narrow province of Judea, but from the coasts of the entire world, that multitudes now flock to hear the Saints in the silent eloquence of their tombs, and to experience the virtue that goes out from them.
St. Paulinus of Nola thus speaks in his poems: “God in His goodness, has willed that the Saints should be distributed among the nations, so that their aid might never be wanting to us weak mortals. If He has given the principal cities to the greatest Saints for their residence, the grace with which they are endowed for our sake is not confined to the places where their entire bodies rest; where there are but small portions there is the same power, and God thus gives testimony to their credit in Heaven. From the holy deposit the sacred ashes are scattered abroad, and become the seeds of life: let but the least drop be taken from the spring, and it is itself a source producing rivers of grace and of love.”
Considering the unequal distribution of relics throughout the world, Rome has not fixed one universal Feast for the essentially local veneration of these precious remains. The Mass of the Holy Relics is found in the Missal, among the Masses for Various Places, on the 5th of November. In some places it has been celebrated on the 3rd, in others, on the Sunday within the Octave of All Saints; but nearly always it is celebrated, most fittingly, within that Octave. (1)
Image: Saint Nicolas – an icon 17th cent., Historic Museum in Sanok, Poland (5)
Research by REGINA Staff.