Friday, November 2, 2007


Before Vatican II it was necessary to celebrate mass on an altar with a relic of a martyr. It is not absolutely necessary any longer but still highly encouraged. This stems back to the early Church when the Christians celebrated mass in the catacombs on the tombs of the faithful. When the Church emerged from the catacombs the tradition continued by way of having a relic of the faithful as part of altar. This ties us together not only with the ancient Church, but with those who are members of the Body of Christ but no longer with us corporally.

In order to be used in any official way there are certain things that need to be in place for a relic to be considered authentic. Relics are usually kept in some sort of container such a reliquary as seen here. To the left the rear of the reliquary has been opened (I do not recommend doing this) and you can see a wax seal with a bishop’s coat of arms on it which testify to the authenticity of the relic. Through the wax are two red stings. All this works together to signify that the relics have not been disturbed. Once the seal or strings are broken the relics can no longer be authenticated and cannot be used in an official manner such as being placed in an altar. This happened locally when someone discovered some small metal boxes inside an altar they were moving and out of curiosity removed the seals and strings to see what was inside. At that point the relics were no longer able to be used in the altar though they are still on display in a respectful fashion.

There is often also a letter of authenticity that accompanies a relic. This is the letter in Latin that accompanies the above relics.

In no way can relics be bought or sold. There are those who try to get around this by not selling the relics but the reliquary in which they come. “Buy a reliquary and get a free relic.” This is a practice of the lowest degree.

It should be held in mind that first class relics of saints are part of their bodies and are deserving of proper care and respect. They should be kept and used in a way fitting of the dignity of the human body. Having one in your home in a box that gets shoved around on a closet shelf is not fitting. In fact, the one above was discovered in a mailbox at a local Church, being given to the Church so that it might be properly cared for.


Anonymous said...

Why was it deemed no longer necessary to celebrate Mass on an altar containing the relic of a martyr after Vatican II which was supposed to return us to the traditions of the early Church?

It seems as if it was the aim to strip all of the colour and devotional life from the church; statues being painted white or brown, churches looking more like meeting halls than houses of God, the Blessed Sacrament put off to the side etc etc

Adoro te Devote said...

anon ~ V2 did not strip the Church. If you read the documents, it said no such thing.

While some of the language of the V2 documents is problematic and ambiguous, the first issue was the people who interpreted it devoid of guidance; it was THEY who did what they were nto supposed to do. It comes down to definitions; the definitions of the "world" are not theological definitions, and so there we have a problem first with language. That's where you hear of the "heremeneutic of continuity" and the "hermeneutic of discontinuity"...and you are describing the latter.

The document, Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Vatican II document on the liturgy has been greatly abused; if you read it, you will see that it stated very clearly that statues were to be maintained, Gregorian chant, especially was to be retained, and that the Latin language was to maintain a high place within the liturgy.

The reality is that no one told anyone to turn the altar around, no one suggested painting the statues, stripping them from the church, etc. Look for it in the's not there.

The document Sacrosanctum Concilium is readily available on the Vatican website as well as at EWTN. Read it for yourself.

Vatican II is not the enemy. The actual "Spirit of Vatican II" is an enrichment of the faith (better education for everyone), growth in holiness (everyone is called to holiness, not just religious/clergy), updating institutions to the degree of logic- ie; sisters modifying, not losing their habits, recognizing the issues facing the world today dealing with rapid industrialization, biological ethics, etc. (Read JPII's "Redemptor Hominis and his book "Sources of the Renewal")

Anyway, none of this has to do with relics. Be careful not to confuse the issues.

Fr. V. ~ The question posed to me last year was this: The Catholic Church teaches respect for the dead. We, as a rule, don't cremate as a rule, although it is allowed, and we are also able to donate organs, etc. No problem. It's all logical. Because Christianity as a whole believes in the Resurrection, there's no issue with this as we look at the intent and the good that comes out of our acts even in light of the Resurrection.

But then there's the issue of relics. While it may be agreed that a properly treated reliquary containing, say, the bone of a Saint may say something theologically in accordance with scripture, there is still the issue of respect for the dead: How exactly, is it respectful to part out the body of St. Sebastian and send him all over the world, his finger to be placed in a reliquary, his tongue in another, his toe in an altar, and the rest of his remains in a crypt?

I couldn't answer the question. The person asking understood the idea of respect for the relics at each point, and agreed that, in fact, people did indeed love the Saint...but how is this more respectful than in leaving poor St. Sebastian in one place, his relics to be honored at his place of burial only?

I couldn't answer his question. Scriptural citations weren't enough...we didn't have St. Peter to preach about St. Stephen's head in one place and his feet in a different country. On the surface, it DOES seem disrespectful.

The last time I was in Mexico, a friend took me to the glass coffin (a reliquary of sorts) of San Sebastian, the patron of Travelers. He was a missionary in Mexico, as I recall, and was one who was quite pristine in his state although he'd been dead for over 200 years. My friend pointed to his toes...filanges (tips of his toes) had been removed by relic-seekers, and that's why he was placed under plexiglass, to prevent this.

At the time I was unaware of the practice of having relics in an altar, etc. I couldn't believe people would take pieces of a dead body for themselves.

Even if the Church does it, and I understand can I explain it adequately? I still can't do this.

If a body part of a Saint came into my hands, I'd be likely to turn it over to an Archbishop or someone like that...even in a reiquary, it just doesn't seem right.

I have no probelm with 2nd or 3rd class relics.

Fr. V said...


One easier way to answer the question is to ask how is it NOT respectful. What is our main purpose on earth? To give glory to God and to lead others to Him also. Since we are sensual people how do we do prinarily do that? Through our bodies.

Why do we primarily bury the dead? Because that gives dignity to the human person and points to the greater belief of what God has revealed to us. This is not the case when we keep grandma on the mantle. Is this sacred space? Is this a place primarily of prayer and reflection? Does she inspire you to greater acts of charity and glory to God? Are her remains gauranteed to be properly cared for once you are out of the picture?

The saints continue to give glory to God through their bodies. They are kept in a dignified manner and in such places that the faithful should be moved to come closer to God and each other. Is it giving MORE glory to God for more of the faithful to have access to the relics as opposed to scattering Uncle Joe on the lake?

It is the same scenario somewhat as donating organs. How do I glorify God in my body?

Anyway - that's ONE way of looking at it.