Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The Feast of the Holy Relics

In the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia, the entry on Relics states that “It has long been customary especially in churches which possessed large collections of relics, to keep one general feast in commemoration of all the saints whose memorials are there preserved. (As will be explained below, this is something of an overstatement.)

Part of the relics collection of the basilica of St Petronius in Bologna.
An Office and Mass for this purpose will be found in the Roman Missal and Breviary, and though they occur only in the supplement Pro aliquibus locis and are not obligatory upon the Church at large, still this celebration is now kept almost universally. The office is generally assigned to the fourth Sunday in October.” The author, Fr Herbert Thurston SJ, wrote “generally” because there was a variety of uses in regard to the date. I have seen the feast on October 26 in a 19th century breviary printed at Naples, while the Dominicans kept it on the 30th, and the Premonstratensians on November 14th. The Catholic Encyclopedia article was published just prior to the reform of St Pius X, which abolished the custom of fixing feasts to particular Sundays; after that reform, the most common date was November 5th.

The Divine Office for the feast is that of the common of Several Martyrs, with lessons in the second nocturn taken from St John Damascene’s Treatise on the Orthodox Faith, which perfectly summarize the Church’s theology of relics.

“Christ the Lord granted us the relics of the Saints as fonts of salvation, from which very many benefits come to us. … In the (old) law, whosoever touched a dead person was deemed unclean, but these (i.e. the Saints) are not to be reckoned among the dead. For from that time when He who is life itself, and the Author of life, was reckoned among the dead, we do not call them dead who have fallen asleep in Him with the hope and faith of the resurrection.”

This mid-11th century fresco in the lower basilica of St Clement in Rome shows the translation of the relics of St Clement, which Ss Cyril and Methodius discovered while they were evangelizing the Slavs in the region to which Clement had been deported, and where he had been martyred in the early 2nd century. The two Saints are depicted at left with Pope St Nicholas I, to whom they gave the relics; in the middle, St Clement is depicted as a living person, lying on a bier and covered with a red blanket, holding up his head, to indicate that the relics are his living presence among us. At the right, the Pope is celebrating Mass, with the Missal open to the “Per omnia saecula” and “Pax Domini” before Communion. (Public domain image from Wikimedia.)
He goes on to note various kinds of miracles that are worked by relics: “demons are expelled, illnesses driven away, the sick are healed, the blind regain sight, the leprous are cleansed, temptations and sorrows are scattered, and every best gift descendeth through them from the Father of lights (James 1, 17), unto those who ask with unwavering faith.”

As a theologian and Doctor of the Church, St John is best known for his defense of sacred images against the iconoclast heresy. “Iconoclasm” literally means “the breaking of images”, but in its Byzantine form, it also attacked the Church’s devotion to relics, just as the Protestant form would eight centuries later. Shortly after the Synod of the Hieria, which took place in the Emperor’s palace in Chalcedon in 753, and made iconoclasm the official policy of the Byzantine Empire, the altar of the nearby basilica of St Euphemia was dismantled, and her relics removed from it and cast into the sea. This was the first in a twenty-year long campaign of similar desecrations, and persecution of the iconodules. When the Second Council of Nicea was convoked in 787 to reestablish the orthodox faith, several accounts of miracles worked by both images and relics were adduced in their favor, and incorporated into the Council’s official acts, following the line set out by St John.

The Mass of the Holy Relics found in the supplement to the Missal is a fairly recent composition; its three prayers are all proper to the feast, but the Gregorian propers and Scriptural readings are selected from other Masses. The Introit is taken from the feast of Ss John and Paul, the first martyrs whose relics were buried inside a church within the city of Rome. “Many are the afflictions of the just; and out of them all will the Lord deliver them. The Lord keepeth all their bones, not one of them shall be broken.” The Epistle, Sirach 44, 10-15, is that of the octave day of Ss Peter and Paul, over whose tombs and relics the Emperor Constantine built two of Rome’s earliest public churches; it is here selected for the verse “Their bodies are buried in peace, and their name liveth unto generation and generation.” The Gradual Exsultabunt Sancti and the Gospel, Luke 6, 17-23, the beginning of the Sermon on the Plain, are both taken from the vigil of All Saints, since the feast of the Holy Relics is effectively celebrated as a part of All Saints’ Day. The remaining chants are taken from the Masses of various Martyrs.

A 15th-century reliquary of St James the Greater, the presence of which in the cathedal of Pistoia made that city into one of the major pilgrimage centers of medieval Italy.
It is would be difficult to overstate the importance of relics in the devotional life of the medieval Church, and a general commemoration “of the relics” is often found in medieval breviaries among the series of votive commemorations known as “suffrages.” However, a general feast of relics per se is actually quite rare in the Middle Ages; one of the few notable examples is found in the Use of Sarum, which kept such a feast on the Sunday after July 7th. This date was chosen because July 7th was the feast of the translation of perhaps the most important relics in pre-Reformation England, those of St Thomas of Canterbury. Translation feasts were also celebrated for St Martin of Tours and St Benedict, and indeed, all three were kept within a single week, with the former on the 4th and the latter on the 11th.

In point of fact, it was a much more common practice to celebrate the translation or reception of a specific relic or group of relics, rather than a feast of relics in general. In 1194, a feast of this kind was established at Paris, celebrated on December 4th under the title “Susceptio Reliquarum – The Receiving of the Relics.” The objects in question were believed to be several of the Virgin Mary’s hairs, three of St John the Baptist’s teeth, the arm of St Andrew the Apostle, some of the stones with which St Stephen was killed, and a large portion of the skull of St Denis. The pre-Tridentine Breviary of Paris has a special Office for the day, which mixes together parts of the Offices of these Saints with others from that of All Saints’ Day, and the hymns of Several Martyrs. Particular emphasis is laid on the Virgin, to whom the cathedral of Paris, where these relics were kept, is dedicated, and on local hero St Denis. This Office remained in use in the post-Tridentine period, with modifications that did not change its basic tenor.

(Many of the relics kept at Notre Dame de Paris were destroyed during the Revolution; the following video shows the monthly exposition of one of the most famous ones that survived, the Crown of Thorns, which had its own feast on the Parisian calendar on August 11th.)

I am sure that some of those who read this article will smile (or perhaps smirk) at the idea of relics of the Virgin Mary’s hair or the stones used to kill St Stephen. In this, they will not be alone. In the early decades of the 18th century, the church of Paris turned to a general and radical revision of its liturgical books, the reform which we now call “neo-Gallican.” This reform embraced many of the rationalist critiques brought against some of the Church’s traditional stories and legends; in the 19th century, Dom Prosper Guéranger, the great enemy of the neo-Gallicans, complained bitterly of their splitting up of both St Mary Magdalene and St Denis into different personages according to the various parts of their legends.

Likewise, suspicious (to say the least) of the authenticity of these relics, the neo-Gallican reform completely erased the original character of the “Susceptio Reliquiarum”, transforming it into a general feast of relics. Renamed as “the Veneration of the Holy Relics”, and transferred to November 8th, the octave day of All Saints, it was then given a completely new Office, which contains no references at all to the specific relics for which it was originally instituted, or the Saints whose relics they were.

The neo-Gallican liturgical reforms contain a great many lapses in taste and judgment which almost beggar belief; however, the new Office of the Holy Relics, whatever its history may be, is from a literary point of view one of the better efforts of its kind. Like most people who put their hand to changing historical liturgies, the Neo-Gallican revisers were painfully obsessed with making everything “more Scriptural,” and the new antiphons and responsories consist almost entirely of direct citations from the Bible. But they are very well chosen from a wide selection of books, and do demonstrate effectively that the Church’s veneration of relics is a tradition thoroughly grounded in Scripture. Just to give one example, the following responsory cites an Old Testament episode which was later used by Cardinal Newman in his Apologia to justify the veneration of relics.

R. They cast the body into the sepulcher of Elisha, and when it had touched the bones of Elisha, the man came back to life, and stood upon his feet. (4 Kings 13, 21) V. By faith they received their dead raised to life again. (Hebr. 11, 35) And when…

It is also, I believe, the only example of a neo-Gallican Office that was adopted for use outside France, and continued to be used, at least in part, even after the neo-Gallican liturgies were definitively suppressed in the 19th century. The Neapolitan breviary which I mentioned above contains it in almost exactly the same form as it appears in the 1714 edition of the Parisian Breviary. The one feature of the Office which the neo-Gallican reforms could not make into a chain of Scriptural citations is the corpus of hymns, to which a great many new compositions were added. The new Parisian Office of the Holy Relics includes a hymn written by a cleric of the diocese of Paris named Claude Santeul (1624-84) which was adopted by the Benedictines for their version of the feast, and is thus still part of the Antiphonale Monasticum for the Office to this very day. The meter is one used by the classical poet Horace called the Third Asclepiadean, not previously part of the traditional repertoire of Christian hymns. Some of Santeul’s odd vocabulary (e.g. “Christiadum” instead of “Christianorum”) is determined by the need to find words that fit the meter, but his complicated word order is a deliberate imitation of Horace’s style.


Reverence their poor and sadly dear remains!
Folded in peace their earthly vesture lies,
Dear pledges, left below, but thence to rise,
Pledges of heavenly bodies, free from pains!

And here ye may lift up your thankful strains,
Ye Christian companies. The spirit flies,
And hath its recompense in quiet skies,
And leaves with you below its broken chains:

Yet for their bones meek Piety shall plead,
Blest Piety, which honoureth the dead!
Though scatter’d far and wide, yet God’s own eye
Doth keep them that they perish not; and when

The promised hour shall come, their God again
Shall gather them, and as He builds on high
His habitation, each there, moulded by His grace,
Shall live and find a sure abiding place.

To us the places where your ashes be
Shall be as altars, whence shall steadier rise
Our prayers to Heav’n; and that blest Sacrifice,
Where God the Victim cometh down from high,

Shall consecrate to holier mystery;
He here accepts your deaths as join’d with His,
Here builds all in one body, and supplies
Our dying frames with immortality.

And hence your graves become a tower of aid,
A refuge from bad thoughts, a sacred shade;
Until, fresh clad with new and wondrous dowers,
Our flesh shall join the angelic choirs, and be

A living temple crowned with heavenly towers;
Where evermore the praises shall ascend
Of the great undivided One and Three,
And God be all in all, world without end. Amen.

(English translation by Isaac Williams from Hymns translated from the Parisian Breviary, Riviginton, London, 1839)

The neo-Gallican use also has a different Gospel from the one named above for the feast of the Holy Relics, Luke 20, 27-38, in which Christ disputes with the Sadducees about nature of the final Resurrection. The conclusion of this passage is particularly important as the foundation of what St John Damascene says, that the Saints are not truly dead. “Now that the dead rise again, Moses also shewed, at the bush, when he called the Lord, The God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; for he is not the God of the dead, but of the living: for all live to him.” In the Parisian Breviary, the homily that accompanies it is taken from a treatise written by St Jerome against a priest from Gaul named Vigilantius, who had denied the value of praying to the Saints and venerating relics, a work in which we see the Saint at his wittiest and most acerbic.

“Vigilantius is vexed to see the relics of the martyrs covered with a costly veil, and not bound up with rags or hair-cloth, or thrown down the midden, so that Vigilantius alone in his drunken slumber may be worshipped. Are we, therefore guilty of sacrilege when we enter the basilicas of the Apostles? Was the Emperor Constantius guilty of sacrilege when he transferred the sacred relics of Andrew, Luke, and Timothy to Constantinople? In their presence the demons cry out, and those who dwell in Vigilantius (i.e. the devils) confess that they feel their influence. And at the present day, is the Emperor Arcadius guilty of sacrilege, who after so long a time has conveyed the bones of the blessed Samuel from Judea to Thrace? Are all the bishops to be considered not only sacrilegious, but fools as well, because they carried that most worthless thing, dust and ashes, wrapped in silk in golden vessel? Are the people of all the Churches fools, because they went to meet the sacred relics, and welcomed them with as much joy as if they beheld a living prophet in their midst, so that there was one great swarm of people from Palestine to Chalcedon with one voice re-echoing the praises of Christ? They were forsooth adoring Samuel and not Christ, whose Levite and prophet Samuel was. You imagine he is dead, and therefore you blaspheme. Read the Gospel: the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”

St Jerome the Penitent, by Titian, 1575; when depicted in this fashion, he is traditionally shown holding a rock with which he is said to have beaten his breast as an act of penance. Given the ferocity of Jerome’s polemical writings, and a general apprehension of his character (he quarreled violently with several of his friends), Pope Benedict XIV is supposed to have remarked on seeing such a representation of the Saint, “If it is true, that would be the only way you got into heaven.”

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