Catholics Do the Strangest Things
The celebration of St. Maria Goretti’s feast on July 6 reminds me of the opportunity our family had last October to view the relics of St. Maria Goretti, which were touring the eastern United States (and perhaps returning in 2017 for the western portion).
To a non-Catholic, this exhibit can be viewed as bizarre. We were standing in long lines to see skeletal remains (covered with a wax coating) of a young peasant Italian girl who was stabbed to death. Without spiritual eyes, our little field trip could be considered macabre and even superstitious.
But we were not looking with the eyes of the world. This was a spiritual field trip.
For me personally, this was a very special visit. I took Maria Goretti as my confirmation saint. I wanted her help to protect me and help me to be strong especially in those teenage years filled with temptation.
I wasn’t sure if this would be a little gruesome for my sons or that maybe we would feel indifferent. It was neither. Seeing her small size made us appreciate even more how weak, vulnerable and little she was. She was only 11, the size and close to the age of my oldest son when she was attacked.
It was an opportunity to show the gravity of the sin of impurity to my sons without having to put it into too many words or unnecessary descriptions. Here was the actual relics of a child near their age who loved God more than her own life. Maria lived those words of another child saint, St. Dominic Savio, “Death rather than sin!” She chose death rather than allowing someone to destroy her purity. She chose death rather than allowing her attacker to commit a mortal sin of impurity. That casket with the petite relics spoke volumes.
The tour of the relics was a tour of mercy, tying in with the Year of Mercy. St. Maria, while bleeding to death and in utmost suffering chose to forgive her attacker unconditionally. And Alessandro, the murderer, also found mercy and forgiveness through Christ, and changed his life six years after being in prison.
As I stood in line waiting, I started thinking that the veneration of relics is very misunderstood practice, even by Catholics. While it looks a very strange ritual, there are very basic points to know about relics:
1. Veneration of Saints and Mary: Catholics do not worship Mary or the saints.
The Church uses official words such as dulia and hyperdulia that refer to our honor and veneration of Mary and the saints. There is no worship involved. Rev. Cassian Folsom, OSB explains:
There’s a traditional distinction that’s very useful: a distinction using three Greek words: latria, hyperdulia, dulia. These three categories indicate different grades of reverence due to God and the saints. Latria means adoration: it is reserved to God alone. Dulia means reverence; it is given to the saints and to sacred objects. Hyperdulia means “extra special reverence”. There is only one person in this category: Mary the Mother of God, since she is above all the saints by the glorious design of Divine Providence.
Father Francis Weiser shares more detail in The Veneration of Saints.
2. What is a Relic?
The word relic comes from the Latin word reliquiae, meaning “the remains.” Since the beginning of Christianity, the word has been used to refer to the physical remains of saint such as the bones or former physical possessions.
The Council of Trent summarized the Church’s teachings on the veneration of relics. This is why the faithful venerate relics:
that the holy bodies of holy martyrs, and of others now living with Christ,—which bodies were the living members of Christ, and ‘the temple of the Holy Ghost’ (1 Corinthians 6:19), and which are by Him to be raised unto eternal life, and to be glorified,—are to be venerated by the faithful; through which (bodies) many benefits are bestowed by God on men...(Council of Trent, Twenty-fifth Session, On the Invocation and Veneration of Relics of Saints and on Sacred Images, 1563)
There are three different categories of relics. First-class relics refer to a part of a saint’s body, such as bone, teeth, hair, blood or ash. Second-class relics are items worn or used by the saint, such as clothing. Third-class relics are items such as a piece of cloth or medal that have touched a first or second class relic or the grave of the saint. The tour had St. Maria Goretti’s bones, making them first-class relics. The staff distributed cards that were touched to the bones, making the cards third-class relics.
Relics are physical reminders of our connection with the Communion of Saints. Just like we keep photos or memorabilia of special people or events in our life, a relic brings us closer to the saint. We can think of him/her, the examples of their faith and virtue, and ask for spiritual help in our lives.
A relic is not a talisman with magical powers. There have been occasions when a sick person touched a relic obtained a cure, but this cure was not through power of the relic, but through the saint interceding for the person. God sometimes allows these miracles to give Him glory and honor and perhaps to help people strengthen their Faith.
3. The Regulation of Relics
Veneration of relics was very popular, especially in the Middle Ages. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales centered around pilgrims on their way to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket. Santiago de Compostela pilgrims go to venerate the relics of St. James the Apostle, a popular pilgrimage that continues today. Unfortunately, abuses of relics arose, such as selling them for a profit or viewing them with superstition. The Council of Trent in the 1500s reformed the Church’s regulation of relics, and the current Code of Canon Law continues this regulation of relics:
Can. 1186 To foster the sanctification of the people of God, the Church commends to the special and filial reverence of the Christian faithful the Blessed Mary ever Virgin, Mother of God, whom Christ established as the mother of all people, and promotes the true and authentic veneration of the other saints whose example instructs the Christian faithful and whose intercession sustains them.
Can. 1187 It is permitted to reverence through public veneration only those servants of God whom the authority of the Church has recorded in the list of the saints or the blessed.
Can. 1188 The practice of displaying sacred images in churches for the reverence of the faithful is to remain in effect. Nevertheless, they are to be exhibited in moderate number and in suitable order so that the Christian people are not confused nor occasion given for inappropriate devotion.
4. Connection with Our Brothers and Sisters in Christ
The Mystical Body of Christ connects us with all members of the Church, spanning through all the ages. The Vatican II document Sacrosanctum Concilium details that special relationship of Mary and the saints:
103. In celebrating this annual cycle of the mysteries of Christ, Holy Church honors the Blessed Mary, Mother of God, with a special love. She is inseparably linked with her son’s saving work. In her the Church admires and exalts the most excellent fruit of redemption, and joyfully contemplates, as in a faultless image, that which she herself desires and hopes wholly to be.
104. The Church has also included in the annual cycle memorial days of the martyrs and other saints. Raised up to perfection by the manifold grace of God and already in possession of eternal salvation, they sing God’s perfect praise in heaven and pray for us. By celebrating their anniversaries the Church proclaims achievement of the paschal mystery in the saints who have suffered and have been glorified with Christ. She proposes them to the faithful as examples who draw all men to the Father through Christ, and through their merits she begs for God’s favors....
111. The saints have been traditionally honored in the Church, and their authentic relics and images held in veneration. For the feasts of the saints proclaim the wonderful works of Christ in his servants and offer to the faithful fitting examples for their imitation.
As mentioned before, the relics of the saints are physical reminders of our connection with the Communion of Saints. The saints are our brothers and sisters who have gone before us, leaving us an example, but also a hand extended in friendship. These saints can help us by intercession, asking God for help for us.
5. Our Weekly (or Daily) Encounter with Relics
Veneration of relics is not only a medieval or obscure Catholic practice. We don’t have to seek a special tour of relics, like that of St. Maria Goretti. Whether one realizes it or not, relics are part of every Catholic’s daily life. In every church with a fixed altar, relics of martyrs or other saints are inserted under the altar stone, following the ancient tradition of the Church. This is still practiced, as per the The Code of Canon Law. During every Mass around the world (on a fixed altar) we encounter the saints through these altar stone relics. It is through their intercession, worshipping together at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass that we are united with the Communion of Saints.
The Directory of Popular Piety and the Liturgy elaborates:
237. The Missale Romanum reaffirms the validity “of placing the relics of the Saints under an altar that is to be dedicated, even when not those of the martyrs”325. This usage signifies that the sacrifice of the members has its origin in the Sacrifice of the altar326, as well as symbolising the communion with the Sacrifice of Christ of the entire Church, which is called to witness, event to the point of death, fidelity to her Lord and Spouse.
Today I pray to my Confirmation saint for her intercession and fondly remember how the Tour of St. Maria Goretti’s relics provided a wonderful closeness to this young martyr. It was a chance to know her life, to further understand her virtue, and see her example of mercy, but it was also an opportunity to understand the gift of relics. Relics are a blessing from the Church that unites the Communion of Saints.
For Further Reading on Relics:
- Keeping in Touch with the Saints by Ann Ball
- The Devotion to Relics by Fr. William Saunders
- Relics from The Catholic Encyclopedia
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