Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brulee: How a Founding Father and His Slave, James Hemings, Introduced French Cuisine to America.
A few years ago, I had a part-time gig working for a Catholic travel company that specialized in in-depth tours of Rome. I wasn’t the tour guide. More like the tour shepherd: if 34 pilgrims got off the bus, I made sure that 34 pilgrims got back on the bus. This was not always easy, since pilgrims have a tendency to wander off into obscure chapels, or to take a seat in a pew to appreciate a work of art, or enter into a reverie of devotion just as the rest of the group is heading out the door. As a result, a lot of my time was spent rounding up the wayward, while keeping an eye on where the guide was taking us next.
One sunny November morning our group visited the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, the grand Dominican church where St. Catherine of Siena lies enshrined beneath the high altar, and where a Michelangelo sculpture of Christ carrying His cross stands to one side of the sanctuary. Nearby, surrounded by an iron grill, lies the tomb of Blessed Fra Angelico, one of the finest artists of the early years of the Italian Renaissance. In 1982, in recognition of Fra Angelico’s holiness, Pope St. John Paul II beatified him, and subsequently declared him the patron saint of artists.
Amid the splendors of the Minerva church, our pilgrims might have missed Blessed Angelico’s tomb, but our guide pointed it out. Outside the grill was a basket of holy cards, which the pilgrims collected. They wanted to touch the card to the saint’s tombstone, but most couldn’t reach it. At six-foot-four-inches, I had the longest reach in the group. So I knelt down, slipped my right arm through the bars of the grill, and touched holy card after holy card to the tombstone, churning out, in a very short time, two or three dozen third class relics. Luther and Calvin would have been horrified.
Relics are one of those facets of Catholic devotional life that inspire fascination, sometimes awe, and more often than not a reason to raise one’s eyebrow. Just say the word “relic” in a group of people and invariably someone will mention “all those heads of St. John the Baptist,” or that there are “enough bits of the True Cross to build a battleship.”
Why does the Catholic Church preserve relics, and why do the faithful venerate them, and why do Catholics want them (as I learned the day I “made” a few in Rome)?
To answer those questions, let’s look at relics from a non-religious perspective. All of us know or have heard of parents who saved a lock of their baby’s hair, or some of their child’s baby teeth, or a favorite toy. Certainly all of us have in our possession jewelry, furniture, or some other item that was dear to our parents, our grandparents, or other members of the family. Bringing out Grandma’s china for Christmas dinner or praying with her rosary stirs the emotions and makes us feel connected once again to someone we loved but who has since died.
Secular society prizes relics, too. Several years ago, during a visit to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, I noticed one display case that was always surrounded by a large crowd. Once I managed to get to the front, I found that the case held the gloves Mary Todd Lincoln wore to Ford’s Theatre on the dreadful night her husband was assassinated. The display card explained that the reddish brown stains on the gloves were Abraham Lincoln’s blood. A museum curator would call these gloves an artifact; but if Lincoln were a canonized saint of the Catholic Church, the gloves would be a relic.
And the veneration of relics is not limited to the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Buddhists venerate teeth of the Buddha; Muslims venerate the sword, the robe, and even strands from the beard of the prophet Mohammed. In ancient times, when a farmer or an excavation crew unearthed dinosaur bones, the Greeks and Romans took them for the remains of the Titans.
Just as family heirlooms provide a physical connection with someone we love, historical artifacts provide a link to a person we admire, or, in the case of Mary’s Lincoln’s bloodstained gloves, a link to a particular moment in history. Sacred relics work in the same way, but much more intensely because in the case of relics of the saints the connection is not only to someone we love or admire, but to someone who was genuinely holy and is now a glorified soul in heaven who will intercede for us with Almighty God.
It comes as a surprise to most Catholics that reverence for the remains and belongings of saints is rooted in Sacred Scripture. In 2 Kings 13:20-21 we read of a dead man being restored to life after his corpse came in contact with the remains of the prophet Elisha: “as soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood on his feet.” In the New Testament we find this story in Mark 5:25-34: “And there was a woman who had had a flow of blood for twelve years, and who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse. She had heard the reports about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. For she said, ‘If I touch even his garments, I shall be made well.’ And immediately the hemorrhage ceased; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.” The Acts of the Apostles recounts how Christians asked St. Paul to touch handkerchiefs and other cloths; when these cloths were given to the sick or the possessed, “diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them” (Acts 19:11-12).
Even in times of persecution the early Christians made an earnest effort to recover the remains of the martyrs so they could be given a proper burial. A letter from about the year A.D. 156 describes the martyrdom of the elderly bishop of Smyrna, St. Polycarp. The Roman authorities ordered his body to be burned, but the Christians of Smyrna searched among the ashes for any trace of the saint that had not been consumed by the flames. “We took up his bones,” the anonymous author of the letter wrote, “which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place, where the Lord will permit us to gather ourselves together, as we are able, in gladness and joy, and to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom.”
It became customary among the early Christians to gather at a martyr’s tomb on the anniversary of his or her martyrdom—what we call the feast day. In many instances the bishop would say Mass using the martyr’s sarcophagus as an altar. That is the origin of the tradition—still observed today—of sealing the relics of saints within an altar. That venerable tradition provides a direct, unbroken link from the catacombs to your parish church.
There was always the danger, of course, that some Christians in their enthusiasm might treat the saints as if they were little gods and the relics as if they were magical talismans. St. Jerome, in his letter to Riparius, writes of the proper veneration of saints and relics, “We do not worship, we do not adore [saints], 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.”
Sadly, during the Middle Ages some places claimed to possess relics that were absurd, such as a feather from the Holy Spirit, or the shield St. Michael the Archangel carried when he drove Lucifer out of Heaven. One of the most coveted relics of the Middle Ages was the head of St. John the Baptist. There is no telling how many churches listed it among its treasures, including the Church of St. Sylvester in Capite in Rome, the Cathedral of Amiens in France, and the Gandzasar Monastery in Armenia. Strangest of all, the Muslim clergy of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus asserted that they had the skull of St. John—a claim they make to this day.
Such abuses led the Protestants reformers to attack the veneration of relics. The Catholic bishops at the Council of Trent responded by explaining and defending the practice, saying, “The holy bodies of holy martyrs and of others now living with Christ—which bodies were the living members of Christ and 'the temple of the Holy Ghost' (1 Corinthians 6:19) and which are by Him to be raised to eternal life and to be glorified are to be venerated by the faithful, for through these [relics] many benefits are bestowed by God on men.”
Most famous of all relics is the True Cross. In 326, the Empress St. Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem specifically to uncover the Holy Sepulchre, the tomb in which Christ had been buried and from which he had risen from the dead. It was during her excavation of the Holy Sepulchre that St. Helena found the True Cross. Within twenty years of the discovery, fragments of the Cross were found in churches all around the Roman Empire. As the wood “upon which hung the Savior of the world,” to quote the Good Friday liturgy, these fragments were especially prized. Each splinter was—and still is—a direct link to the moment when Jesus Christ gave his life for our salvation. Little wonder, then, that pieces of the True Cross have been the most sought after of all relics.
The countless tiny fragments of relics of the True Cross have led generations of skeptics to claim that if all the bits were reassembled, there would be enough timber to build Noah’s Ark. In 1870 a Frenchman, Rohault de Fleury, published a book in which he recounted his attempt to catalogue all existing relics of the True Cross; he included the measurements of each piece. Fleury found that taken together the extant relics were not sufficient to build a cross large enough to crucify a man.
Among the Catholic faithful relics continue to have an enormous appeal. From 1999 to 2005, relics of St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), popularly known as the Little Flower, traveled to the United States, Canada, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. Enormous crowds turned out to touch or kiss the reliquary.
No one should feel uneasy visiting a shrine or venerating a relic—it is one of the most ancient devotions of the Catholic Church. In many respects it is similar to visiting the grave of a beloved member of the family, or cherishing a family heirloom, but on a much higher level. The relic is a physical link with someone who was so faithful to God in this life that he or she was found worthy to enter the Kingdom of Heaven where all the saints intercede for us forever.