I recently returned from a pilgrimage to Italy. Almost 90 of us made the journey from my Archdiocese of Washington to visit many of the Catholic sites there. Many graces and beautiful sites unfolded before us. Among the greatest graces we received was being able to pray at the tombs of so many saints: Mark, Peter, Paul, Luke, Mathias, Francis, Anthony, Monica, Josephine Bakhita, Claire and Cecilia. Saying Mass in the Vatican Necropolis under St. Peter’s Basilica, just a few feet away from the body of St. Peter, was a great privilege.
I often get questions about relics from readers of my Our Sunday Visitor column. For example: Why do we disinter the bodies of the saints, collecting fragments of bone and hair and distributing them all over the world? Why (mostly in Europe) are the complete bodies of the dead sometimes displayed under altars and in glass cases? To many modern Americans the practice seems a bit ghoulish.
To be sure there have been extremes associated with relics. Some have taken to collecting them like coins. Others venerate relics in a superstitious way. In violation of Church norms, some buy and sell them, even online or in pawn shops. In the past there have been rivalries which set up between cities and countries over who has which relics and of whom. Sometimes the outright theft of relics has taken place. It is said that the body of St. Mark is in Venice today because Venetian merchants stole his body away from Alexandria, Egypt in the ninth century. In some cases, the bodies of saints were relocated when certain regions went under Muslim control. Rivalries and the desire for relics have even led to the head and body of a saint being in two different places.
Some of these practices are lamentable, others somewhat understandable. Overall, though, there has been a great reverence for relics among the Christian faithful going back to the earliest years of Christianity. If there were excesses, they were most often not due to malice but to reverence. Whatever the excesses of the past, abusus non tolit usus (the abuse of something does not take away its proper use).
Relics and the reverence for them have important things to teach us, especially today, when there has been a resurgence of a kind of Gnostic dualism. Gnosticism is an ancient heresy that, among other things, introduces a strong separation between the soul and the body. In it, the body is reduced to a shell, a machine that “I” walk around in, rather than intrinsic to who I am. The cry of gnostic dualism is this: “I am not my body. I am my thoughts, my feelings.”
This dualism is at the heart of today’s sexual confusion. For example, in addressing the issue of homosexual acts (and some heterosexual practices as well) one might point out that the use of the body in such acts is neither natural nor healthy. An exit is not an entrance; a reproductive organ does not belong in an excretory one. Such observations are often dismissed with comments such as these: “What does my body have to do with it? What matters is how I feel, what I think. My feelings tell me that this is right and so it is. My body is just a tool; it doesn’t have anything to teach me in this regard. I am not my body; I am my feelings and thoughts.” Transgenderism takes this to an even stronger conclusion: a man or woman dismisses the obvious testimony of the body and concludes that he or she is something different from that which is inscribed in the body. Reality is refused; the testimony of the body is set aside in favor of playing a game of “Let’s Pretend.”
Christian anthropology rejects the heresy of Gnosticism and insists that the body is important and is in fact integral to who one is. Each of us unites two orders of creation: the material and the spiritual. This is the glory and the dignity of the human person. Angels are pure spirit; animals and plants are purely physical matter. Our glory is to unite the material and the spiritual within our own person. Jesus crowns this human glory in the Incarnation. I am my body even as I am my soul. Gnostic dualism will have none of this, seeing the body as something limiting, to be overcome and discarded at death.
Not so for the Christian. The body has important things to teach us; it is revelatory. God speaks to us not only in our soul but also in our body. The body is to be revered as a revelation from God that speaks to who and what we are.
Relics and reverence for the body in general emerge from this anthropology. There is a tendency today to conclude that when a person dies he is no longer here; he has gone away to Heaven, Purgatory or Hell. That is not entirely true. Through the body, something of the decease person remains here.
Excavations of St. Peter’s tomb revealed an ancient Greek inscription on the wall which said, “Peter is here.” Though his soul has gone to God, what remains of his body is still here. Peter is not simply his soul; he is also his body. So yes, Peter is “here.” To revere St. Peter’s body and smaller relics of it is to revere him and have something of him here with us.
Relics and reverence for the bodies of the dead anchor us in this truth about ourselves: we are matter and spirit, body and soul. Our feelings and thoughts are certainly aspects of our spiritual nature, but they alone are not what or who we are. Our body also teaches us about our very self.
To focus only on the body is to be little better than an animal, but to focus only on the spirit is to become ghostly and ghastly. Indeed, irreverence for the body seems to be increasing, through sexual deviance and extreme forms of body “art” and piercings. The body is neither a tool nor a canvas. It should not be carved up or reshaped in ways that harm its proper functioning or form as God has set it forth.
Today, solemn burial practices and proper reverence for the dead are diminishing. Once common, visits to cemeteries are rare. Though the ancients could say, “Peter is here,” we moderns, beset by dualistic notions, have largely lost such belief. And while the Church does permit cremation, proper burial (in the ground or a niche) of the remains must be ensured. Too often, remains are not being buried. Sometimes they are scattered about in the woods or in the ocean; other times they stay in an urn on the hearth. Strangest of all, some people even make jewelry containing portions of cremated remains, as if our bodies could be reduced to ornaments or bling.
There is something about relics and the tombs of the saints that calls us back to our roots. During my recent pilgrimage we visited the saints; we spent time near their bodies. Peter is here; so is Cecilia; Monica and Mark are, too. They are with God and they are also still with us. In my own parish I have nearly a dozen small relics of the saints: a tiny fragment of bone or a lock of hair. Something of them is here with us in my parish. This is not at all the same as the scattering of cremated remains, which are scattered so as to disappear. No, this is reverence, so as to remember and experience their presence, not their absence. Peter is with God and Peter is still here!