26 August 2022

Why Relics?

Why Relics?

On Sundays and other solemnities you may have noticed the addition of two reliquaries placed on the altar at St Patrick’s Lilydale. The two new reliquaries house first-class relics (ie. small fragments of bone) of two very popular saints that have long been the patrimony of the parish: St Francis of Assisi and Pope St Pius X. Since this Sunday happens to be the feast of St Pius X, I thought it valuable to explain the ancient Christian custom of venerating relics (a custom common to all the ancient apostolic Churches, Catholic and Orthodox).

The Church makes the distinction between three different classes of relics. First class relics are those bodily remains of a particular saint, usually a tiny fragment of bone or perhaps a lock of hair. Second class relics are those objects owned or perhaps worn by a particular saint. These are understandably more plentiful. Third class relics are objects that were either touched or blessed by a saint during their life time, or come into contact with first class relics. I have, for example, blessed rosary beads that were given to me by Pope John Paul II in 2002, who was canonised in 2014. So, technically these rosary beads are relics.

Why does the Church venerate relics? Although the practice of “keeping bits of dead people”(!) might sound macabre or outright bizarre there is a more natural explanation. When we lose someone very near and dear to us it’s quite natural to want to hang onto a few items that remind us especially of them. It’s also not uncommon for mothers to keep a lock of their child’s hair from when they were a baby. These personal ‘souvenirs’ are treasured because they remind us of the person.

The second reason the Church venerates relics is that 2000 years of history testify to the occasional miraculous effect of intercessory prayer involving relics. When miraculous healings are being examined for the cause of canonisation of a particular saint, the postulator will often look to see if relics were involved, as a proof that it was actually through the intercession of ‘that’ particular saint.

It’s important to remember that relics are not ‘lucky charms’, nor should we imagine them as possessing a magical power. We treat relics with honour and respect because they are a sacramental reminder of the presence of the saint. All miracles have God as their origin, although God can choose to perform miracles through the intercessory mediation of his saints. When we pray before or receive a blessing with relics of the saints, this clearly helps focus on the intercessory power of the saint. If there is a miracle worked, one can more clearly attribute the miracle to the intercession of the particular saint.

How does the Church venerate relics? In every altar there are relics of saints. The relics are mortared into a small cavity in an altar stone, which is inserted into the altar. Traditionally the relic for an altar would have to be those of a martyr/s (those who have died for the faith) but more recently the relics of any canonised saint can be placed in the altar. You may have noticed that at the very beginning and very end of Mass the priest goes up to the altar and kisses it. Technically he is venerating the relics in the altar stone that is placed in the altar. Until 1970 the action was accompanied by a prayer (said quietly by the priest) that I still like to say: “By these relics that are here and those of all the saints…”

I recently heard a humorous but truthful anecdote about St Pius of Pietrelcina, better known to the Catholic world as ‘Padre Pio.’ Padre Pio was a stigmatist and one of the greatest saints of the 20th century whose miracles, even during his life, could fill volumes. On one occasion Padre Pio was being thronged by the crowds and one opportunistic admirer began tugging the poor unsuspecting friar’s hair. Padre Pio, clearly irritated by the assault, cried out, ‘what are you doing?’ The assailant replied, “I was trying to get a relic.” Padre Pio immediately quipped: “Go, make your own!” Of course, Padre Pio was right – it’s not enough to want to collect saints: we should all be striving to be saints! That said, relics act as small physical reminders of the saints, who walked this same earth but are now with God in heaven to intercede for us.