The mortal remains and relics of several Saints and Blesseds will be in Sydney for the World Youth Day celebrations. Can you please explain why and how we venerate the relics of the saints?
First of all, let me explain what we mean by relics. According to the Vatican’s Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, the term “relics of the Saints” signifies principally “the bodies – or notable parts of the bodies – of the Saints who, as distinguished members of Christ’s mystical Body and as Temples of the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Cor 3:16, 6:19, 2 Cor 6:16) in virtue of their heroic sanctity, now dwell in Heaven, but who once lived on earth. Objects which belonged to the Saints, such as personal objects, clothes and manuscripts are also considered relics, as are objects which have touched their bodies or tombs such as oils, cloths, and images.” (n. 236)
The Second Vatican Council confirmed the validity of venerating relics, saying that “the Saints have been traditionally honoured in the Church, and their authentic relics and images held in veneration.” (SC 111)
In order to substantiate the authenticity of relics, especially those of Saints who lived a long time ago, it has been customary for relics to be accompanied by a brief note, often with an official seal, testifying to their authenticity.
Why do we value relics? The answer is surely that, as human beings with a body and soul, we take comfort in having with us the tangible, visible remains of the Saints or objects used by them. These somehow make the Saint very close to us.
For this reason we visit the graves of our deceased loved ones in order to pray for them there and to know them close to us. And we keep objects that they wore or used in their lifetime, along with photographs and other mementos of them.
When we venerate the relics of the Saints, we are doing nothing other than living this same spirit in our larger family, the Church.
In this regard, we should not forget that Jesus himself gave us visible ways of communicating grace, in the Sacraments. And he left us himself, bodily present in the Eucharist, so that we could receive him in Communion and pray before him present in the Tabernacle.
Right from the beginning the Church had the custom of venerating the tombs of the martyrs and of celebrating Masses there on their feast days. This led in the sixth century to the requirement that church altars have the relics of martyrs, usually from the bones, within or beneath them.
While the relics of martyrs are no longer strictly required on altars, the latest edition of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal stipulates: “The practice of placing relics of Saints, even those not Martyrs, under the altar to be dedicated is fittingly retained. Care should be taken, however, to ensure the authenticity of such relics.” (GIRM 302)
One of the more common uses of relics is to take them to sick people and to pray to the Saint whose relics they are for the cure of the person. In a very real sense, there is a scriptural justification for this custom.
For example, the woman in Matthew’s gospel who had suffered from a haemorrhage for 12 years sought to touch Jesus’ cloak in order to be cured. She said to herself: “If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.” (Mt 9:21; cf. Mt 14:36) Similarly, miracles were worked by St Paul “so that when the handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were brought to the sick, their diseases left them…” (Acts 19:12)
If sick people are made well or other favours or even miracles are worked through the use of relics, this is not to be attributed to the relics themselves, as if they had magic powers, but rather to the intercession before God of the Saint whose relics they are.
It is always important to remember that while we hold relics in high esteem and we safeguard them carefully so that they are not lost or damaged, we do not worship them. We worship only God. In the case of the Saints and their relics, we venerate or honour them, because of their close association with God.
In this sense St Jerome, who died in 420, wrote in a letter to Riparius: “We do not worship, we do not adore, for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the Creator, but we venerate the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore him whose martyrs they are.”
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