Mr. Shaun McAfee, O.P. is the author of Reform Yourself! and other books, is the founder and editor of EpicPew.com, and contributes to many online Catholic resources. He holds a Masters in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Shaun has made his temporary profession as a Lay Dominican and temporarily lives in Italy.
A few weeks ago, we celebrated the Solemnity of All Saints, better known as All Saints’ Day. In Italy, each church held about seven Masses that day, each of which was filled to capacity. They take the religious holiday very seriously. In fact, it’s a nationwide holiday, which gave the day off to the Italian employees that I supervise. Envious?
At the Mass I attended the priest spoke appropriately about the saints and proceeded to let the those in attendance view a number of relics he had. Taking advantage of every situation that might increase my faith and holiness, I had an idea: create a third-class relic.
What’s a third-class relic? First, let’s make sure we’re all familiar with the definition and classification of relics.
The word comes from the Latin term relinquo, meaning to leave behind—and fittingly, in their highest classification, relics are the physical remains of saints or venerated persons. These remains consist of everything from hair to muscle tissue to vials of blood, with the most common being pieces of bones. These are known as first-class relics and they are usually kept in cathedral crypts, reliquaries in certain locations, and in altar stones in parishes (or in the floor immediately under where an altar would go).
Second-class relics are items that were used or owned by the saint, such as the cassock St. Charles was wearing when he was shot in an assassination attempt. (The blood on the cassock is first class.)
Lastly, third-class relics are items that have been touched to a first-class relic. So, crucifixes, medals and rosaries often become third-class relics.
So when my chaplain brought out all of these relics, I wanted to seize the opportunity. As the crowd stayed after Mass to observe the relics, the priest also offered a blessing and prayer for intercession by one of the saints whose remains were present. Because I did not want to create my own occasion of distraction and perhaps confuse people further, I chose not to ask the priest about my request at the time. But I waited.
About a week ago I saw him again at the local bowling alley where he was supporting the local Life Teen group. I waited for right moment to approach, and plainly asked him, “Father, good evening. I’m Shaun, we met at the All Saints’ Day Mass where you brought out several relics.”
“Oh right, I recognize you. You had the three boys, right?”
“Yes. That’s me. Father, I have a request. I’m not sure if you’re familiar, but I was hoping with your set of relics, you would create a third-class relic for me with my crucifix. It’s from Nagasaki and it’s very important to me.”
“Sure. Which saint did you have in mind?”
“Well, I could take another look, but I would be very happy with the St. John Vianney relic I saw.”
“Okay. After the next Mass we can do that in the sacristy. Just find me.”
“Wow, great. Thanks.”
“So, by the way, this is our Life Teen group.”
“That’s cool. I didn’t know we had one here in Italy.”
“Well we didn’t until recently. A few months ago, the spiritual climate was much different but the Holy Spirit is moving in a lot of hearts now.”
“Fantastic. You know, I write for several Catholic websites [including so and so] and I would be happy to come out and talk to the youth some time if you want.”
He accepted the offer and that’s another story. I went on a little about myself after he asked and I let him know that I am also a Third Order lay Dominican.
“Well, you know, I have a relic of St. Dominic.”
Boom. The deal was done. No more questions. Please make relics of everything I own. Just kidding, but I was elated to hear this news.
The next Sunday I bumped into him before Mass and he insisted we get started immediately. He opened up a crucifix that contained the relics of about 10 different saints, and under one of the ribbons (which read “Dominicus” in the smallest font) there was a little shard of bone. After a short prayer, he touched my crucifix to it and handed it back to me.
Do you believe in the power of relics? Does it seem a bit superstitious to you that I would value the remains of a saint who died nearly 800 year ago, believing that it will increase my faith and can be used for efficacious intercession?
Relics have an important place in the life of every Christian for several reasons. First, the Bible tells us that the human body is a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16-17). Our bodies, these sacred temples, belong to God, and we are commanded to honor God with them (1 Corinthians 6:19).
Furthermore, relics and their veneration can be instruments of God’s power. We see this in Scripture. The Israelites took the bones of Joseph when they departed Egypt (Exodus 13:19). Elisha’s bones came in contact with a dead person who then was resurrected to life (2 Kings 13:21). Elisha also took the mantle of Elijah and fashioned a miracle with it (2 Kings 2:13). The Christians of Ephesus, by using handkerchiefs and cloths touched to St. Paul’s skin, effected the healing of the sick (Acts 19:12). And Christian history is chock-full of occasions of miracles involving contact with and veneration of relics.
It follows, then, that the bodies of the saints, who in their lives honored God to an extraordinary degree, are worthy of our special respect. Beyond mere respect, their bodies are capable of incredible intercessory power and have, over time, being the focus of the miraculous. The Lord performs miracles through tangible objects. “And they besought Him that they might touch, if it were, but the border of His garment; and as many as touched Him were made whole” (Mark 6:56). We know the rest of the story. The woman touches the garment and is healed by both her faith and the power of the physical item that touched Christ. Recall also the mud that Jesus used to heal the blind man (John 9).
From the earliest times of our Faith, Christians have proclaimed the significance of relics, of which there is no better demonstration than the Holy Shroud. The bones of St. Peter have been kept in his tomb under St. Peter’s Basilica since the first century. Together with the consistent testimony of historians and saints and with the scientific proof pointing to their authenticity, we can firmly know that this power is present in Christ and the saints. In fact it is more precise to point out that the saints contain this power because of God and the Holy Spirit, who is present in these living temples, as Scripture confirms.
I encourage all readers to do likewise. Ask your priest if there are any relics in his possession. Chances are good that he has access to a relic or two. Further, your diocese or parish likely has a several relics that can be displayed and used for this special purpose.
Also important and timely to mention is the discussion of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Many of the reformers were violently opposed to the use of relics, and perhaps no bigger enemy of them was John Calvin, whose followers destroyed countless relics. He wrote an extensive tract on the subject, and prompted saints like Charles Borromeo and Francis de Sales to fire back by doubling down on the veneration of relics in huge public processions and display during weeklong celebrations where spiritual exercises were given.
The Council of Trent, too, was not silent on the topic. Five hundred years after the Reformation’s beginnings, we still have the trustworthy and wise voice of the Council Fathers who responded to the Reformers’ claim that veneration of the saints and their relics is contrary to Scripture. As the Council taught, “The holy bodies of the holy martyrs and of the others who dwell with Christ … are to be honored by the faithful.” Let us follow that exhortation in the Church today.
(I’ve written enthusiastically on this topic and others is my new book, Reform Yourself! How to Pray, Find Peace, and Grow in Faith with the Saints of the Counter-Reformation, available now the Catholic Answers Press.)
This article originally appeared Nov. 29, 2017, in the Register.