The Proper Use and Care of Saintly Relics

“Tempting God in words or deeds, sacrilege, and simony are sins of irreligion forbidden by the first commandment.” (CCC 2139)

Benozzo Gozzoli, “The Fall of Simon Magus”, c. 1461
Benozzo Gozzoli, “The Fall of Simon Magus”, c. 1461 (photo: Public Domain)

It’s said that when St. Helena searched for Christ’s True Cross, she also discovered several dozens of other crosses. The Romans would often discard used crosses near Calvary, so Helena had her hands full.

Undeterred, St. Helena took pieces of each cross and placed them on the chests of dying people in a Jerusalem hospital. Those touched by the True Cross recovered.

That’s a pretty smart cookie. Frankly, I would never have thought of doing that.

Since then, however, it’s become increasingly difficult to authenticate saintly relics.

On Dec. 16, 2017, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints issued new instructions on the handling and authentication of relics. The new instructions cover the handling of relics during the process that leads to beatification and canonization. They also delineate rules for the exposition of relics for the veneration of the faithful.

It also reminds the Faithful of the Church’s stand on simony. The sale and trade of relics is strictly prohibited.

With the recent explosion of people trafficking in relics on the internet, we should all be grateful the Vatican had taken the opportunity to address this new surge in simony.

For those not in the know, it is a sin to treat holy objects as consumer goods. No one is allowed to buy or sell relics.

A quick search for “saints” on eBay will horrify most Catholics — except those Catholics who are foolish enough to imperil her souls by buying their relics by the armful.

Agnus Deis, medallions made of the blessed wax of used Paschal candles, can also be bought, which is similarly frightening.

Simony is the act of selling Church offices, positions and holy objects. The word refers to Simon Magus, a charlatan sorcerer who converted to Christianity (Acts 8:9–25). Simon offered Sts. Peter and John money in the hope that they would “bestow” the Holy Spirit on him. Peter was furious at the suggestion and, of course, denounced him. Simon repented, and all’s well that ends well.

Simony has dogged the Church ever since the first century and was, in fact, the primary cause of the Investiture Controversy and one of the many issues Luther whined about during the Reformation/Great Tragedy. The internet simply makes the trafficking in relics all the easier and, frankly, all the more dubious and sinful. After all, these tiny blessed fragments of hair and bone will be resurrected upon the Last Day and thus they must be respected. No one would bid on parts of their grandparents’ bodies on the internet―why should anyone treat the bodies of these holy people any differently?

For those who are still unconvinced as to the dubious nature of these internet relics, one should ask first an as-of-yet unspoken question: Who are the people who are eager to unload these sacred objects and why would anyone want to trust those who profit from simony?

And yet there are Catholics who eagerly and blithely throw grace to wind and embark upon the long, slippery Road to Perdition just for the sake of telling their friends they own a relic of a saint.

As a journalist for the Catholic press, I've met priests and bishops with extensive and impressive relic collections — but they don’t “own” them so much as they are simply responsible for them. The relics are venerated properly and are made available to function in the way the Church teaches―to assist those in need of special blessings.

However, when an undistinguished lay person with no record of “heroic” or extraordinary service to the Church sports an armful of relics, red flags are immediately hoisted. Worse, when relics are haphazardly stacked on a mantle someplace, it’s not in keeping with the respect they are due. They are signs of God’s grace and not to be treated as “trophies” or Hummel collectibles.

When a lay person without much experience, or even interest, in assisting others, collects a sackful of unidentifiable human body parts purchased on the internet, those may or may not be saintly relics.

Imagine scrolling through 20 or 50 relics for sale and choosing one that “fits your budget.” What a scandal! How will purchaser explain himself at the Final Judgement? “Well! I thought it was too cool to pass up!”

One must wonder exactly what these simoniacs―those guilty of simony―think these relics are. Principally, relics are the earthly remains of great and wonderful people who are Friends of God and whose lives were led in heroic virtue, compassion and service to others. They are definitely not talismans or “good luck charms.” They produce no magic any more so than the bones of any human beings. But they are important to our Faith and can assist us in leading good and holy lives―when venerated properly.

I knew a Maltese woman who collects relics by the armful. She actually sent me a PDF listing them list a little boy who is proud of his baseball card collection. She scours eBay despite the fact that she knows the meaning of the word “simony” and “simoniac.” Regardless, she is absolutely unrepentant and has no intention of quitting.

“I rescued them from profane hands!” came back her reply. This woman spoke with exclamation points at the ends of all of her sentences even when she wasn’t writing them. However, her eyes belied her. It was a lie or, at least, not the entire truth. The truth is, she wanted something sacred to call her own.

She owned nearly 100.

I’ve never seen 100 relics in one place other than in a specially designated chapel in a Catholic church.

“Oh! I can tell they are all authentic!” she insisted, her eyes wide with her acquisitive glee. “I’m absolutely sure of it!”

If that were the case, a job awaits her at the Vatican since the last three popes have beatified and/or canonized 4700 saints and beati. I’m sure the Congregation for the Causes of Saints could use someone who “intuitively” knows whether a relic is authentic or not.

“Oh! They all came with certificates of authenticity!” she fumed.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that even certificates of authenticity can be forged. I personally own a single Tibetan stamp. (Yes! I collect stamps! I openly admit I’m a geek.) It is the pride of my collection. Unfortunately, my dealer — yes, I have stamp dealer — wasn’t absolutely certain of its provenance. For those in the know, Tibetan stamps are the most forged stamps in the world. “If it’s a forgery,” explained my dealer. “It’s the best forgery I’ve ever seen.”

Thus, I don’t own a prized Tibetan stamp. Rather, I 80 percent own a prized Tibetan stamp.

The same concerns befall relics — or stuff being passed off as relics.

But, even if we could be assured of the provenance of every single relic put up sale to the highest bidder on eBay, these relics were once parts of humans who are destined for resurrection. While on Earth, they were the living temple of the Holy Spirit and the instruments of their sanctity. After death, these relics belonged to people of such sanctity that they are singled out as models and recognized by the Church through the processes of canonization.

They are owed a special veneration.

Caveat simoniacam! Let the simoniac beware!