Saturday, October 27, 2007


That was quite enough of heraldry I would say though I wanted to go through at least the twelve Apostle’s coats of arms this site did it so well I do not feel a need to repeat it here.

For two weeks however we will touch on the Church’s use of relics. Pictured here in this little reliquary are the twelve apostles and a piece of the true cross. Eleven of the twelve are first-class relics and Saint Peter is a second-class relic.

As you have already picked up there are several classes of relics. There are first class relics that are the bodies or parts of the body of a saint, a second class relic which is something that the saint directly used such as clothing, and a third class relic is something that was touched to a first class relic.

Now at first this might sound a bit odd especially to a non-Catholic. “What are these guys doing messing around with dead people’s things?” Actually in society we do such things all the time.

For example, one time I went to an Engelbert Humperdinck concert (don’t ask) and at one point he wiped his brow and threw his sweat soaked handkerchief into the audience where a bevy of mature ladies practically tore each other a part for a chance to claim a scrap of the material as her own. They were excited to have this token of something that he had used.

There was that brouhaha recently over Steven Levy’s discovery of Einstein’s Brain. He went to the office of the doctor that was last reported to have possession of it and there it was, kept in Mason jars. “It was almost a religious experience,” he reports. “In those jars were the brains the changed the world.”

Victorians saved locks of hair and even weaved them into little braids and kept them in lockets feeling nearer to the one they loved whether they be dead or alive. Cleveland has the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and thousands of people go there yearly just to look at what one of their favorite rock stars once used through a plate of glass, paying big bucks for the privilege of doing so.

I have my grandpa’s brass knuckles from his union days. That in a way is a second-class relic. I can feel his own big rough hands in the finger holes and imagine him using them to gain worker’s rights. Quite inspiring.

The Church has relics for a couple of reasons. One is for the remembrance and inspiration. Can you imagine if these really are a part of those saints? Wow! Like Einstein’s brain they remind us that they were real people that lived and died and changed the world. This was not just some story. Additionally they are reminders of the intercession of the saints. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia the earliest reference and interest in relics were that of St. Polycarp in A.D. 156. “The common belief that graces could be obtained through relics is mentioned by the Church Fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries. By the tenth century, relics were placed in shrines, and in reliquaries of churches, which became centers of pilgrimage.”

More on relics next week.


Rob said...

Actually, the bones of prophets healed people in the Old Testament (Elisha) and Paul's garments (albeit while he was still alive) healed people in the book of Acts.

Rob said...

Oops, hit the enter button!

I was trying to point out that this is something that Catholics didn't simply "make-up" during the "bad-old days". Rather, it is a spiritual phenomena that has carried on from the very beginning, even before the Coming of Christ.

Anonymous said...

Before I became Catholic, I never had any problems with Church teachings, Mary, the Saints, Purgatory, like many Protestants have, but I thought it was "freaky" to carry around dead people bones!

Now I love relics--I wish I had a relic--they are so cool!

Anonymous said...

I just learned about Holy Name Parish - St. Anthony's Chapel in Troy Hill, PA (near Pittsburgh). St. Anthony's Chapel has the largest set of relics in the U.S. (nearly 5,000). I have been thinking about visiting and taking a tour. Let me know if anyone is interested.

Lillian Marie

Adoro te Devote said...

In Acts, I believe that people were healed not only through their garments, but through their SHADOWS. People would strive to just allow Paul's shadow to fall across them.

I'd never considered the "relics" in my possession; things owned by my Dad, my Grandpa's mother-of-pearl strait-razor, my mother's ring (she's still alive), etc etc.

I do have a relic which is a piece of cloth cut from a Mother Superior of the Sisters of the Divine Heart of Jesus.

I also have a few 3rd class relics...Padre Pio (that may be a 2nd class, but I'm not sure), Solanus Casey, a definite 3rd class Padre Pio (then again, that could be 2nd class, too)...and several relic cards, which are ostensibly pieces of cloth touched to 1st class relics and attached into holy cards.

I had a question last year in RCIA that I was unable to answer. We of course revere the dead; everyone does. No one with sound mind approves of desecration.

So one individual, a convert from Lutheranism, asked about why we have relics in altars, why actual BODY PARTS are placed in reliquaries, etc., and how dragging body parts of Saints around the world actually honors them?

He understood the scriptural references in Acts, but he can't reconcile that with our current practices of spread the bones of the martyrs all over the world.

I didn't have an answer...because I don't really understand, either. At least, not at a level I can articulate.


That's a topic for a different post, so if you're looking for topics, Fr. V.....

Fr. V said...

Adoro - Actually I intend on giving at least a partial answer to that very question next week - let me know if it suffices.

Rob - Thanks! That was a good addition!

Lillian - Putting a bus trip together???

Tara - I think most cradle Catholics would be shocked to learn that things we take for granted would be seen as incredibly odd by others.