Saturday, October 28, 2023

On Devotion To and Care for Relics (Part 1): Guest Article by Mr Sean Pilcher

This article is the first of a three-part series on the history and care of sacred relics, authored by Sean Pilcher, director of Sacra: Relics of the Saints (, an apostolate that promotes education about relics, and works to repair, research, and document relics for religious houses and dioceses. Earlier this year, we shared a Latin hymn in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe which he composed; we thank him for sharing his work with us once again.

Part One – A theological and historical basis for relics

The Church’s practice of venerating relics is a part of our human nature. It reaches to the deepest part of our longing for physical connection on this earth, even though we know the vale of tears is not our final home. Grandmother’s clock, Dad’s leather jacket—one can mention any number of treasured family heirlooms, and nearly everyone has some inclination to hold onto the belongings of a lost loved one or of a dear friend. To one unaware, these things are old, tired objects, but they take on a meaning and a history for those who know them.

The respect paid to the bodies and possessions of great men stretches back centuries: the Greeks went to the tombs of Oedipus and Alexander; Buddhist shrines house the relics of the enlightened who have reached nirvana; Americans venerate the guitar used by Hendrix or the clothes worn by Elvis, the suit worn to the moon, a piece of the Berlin Wall. The Tomb of the Unknown soldier actually houses the bones of the fallen.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, photographed on May 1, 1943. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
Holy Mother Church, in her wisdom, provides for this deep longing and elevates it. We are immortal souls, but we are also flesh and bone, and the sacramental economy of our Divine Savior permeates all created things. What is left behind (reliquia) by those we love gives us solace. And the things we hold onto tell us who we are. Let us not mistake the veneration of relics as mere sentimentalism; their veneration is, at its center, a biblical practice. The bones of the righteous and all that was theirs were means of grace even for the Jews. A dead man was hastily cast into the sepulcher of Saint Elisha the Prophet and “when it had touched the bones of Elisha, the man came to life, and stood upon his feet.” (4 Kings 13, 21)
The Miracle at the Grave of Elisha, 1596, by the Dutch painter Jan Nagel (1560 ca. 1602). Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
The contents of the Ark, physical proof of all God had done for the Israelites, were always carried as they made their camp or marched into battle. These were not mere tokens or mementos; they carried with them the strength and holiness of the Living God. In the New Testament, the faithful brought cloth to touch Saint Paul to take to the ailing. Saint Peter’s mere shadow cured the sick. Since the earliest days of persecution, Christians risked their own safety to recover the bones of the martyrs. The inhabitants of Smyrna, in a letter from the year 156, describe the martyrdom of the Apostolic Father Saint Polycarp: “We took up his bones, which are more valuable to us than precious stones and finer than refined gold. We 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.” St Praxedes and her sister St Pudentiana, noble ladies in Rome, are said to have gone to retrieve the bodies of the martyrs and use a sponge to collect their blood into a vessel, lest such a precious witness (martyrion) to Christ ever be lost. Thus, the relics of the saints are held by faithful Christians as means of grace and as inspiration for their lives of virtue.
Saint Praxedes, by Johannes Vermeer, ca. 1655 (The attribution to Vermeer has often been disputed.)
This incredible history, from which we have mentioned only a few examples here, shows the enduring importance of relics in the life of the Church. In any place and time which had authentic, orthodox Christianity, the veneration of relics has abounded. In no place where the apostolic Faith is kept are relics denied honour and respect. And thus does St Jerome write in his treatise Against Vigiliantius, opposing those who refuse devotion to relics, “Do you laugh at the relics of the martyrs, and in company with Eunomius, the father of this heresy, slander the Churches of Christ?”
The relics of Christ’s crib in the Roman basilica of St Mary Major. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Jastrow; released to the public domain by the author.) 

In the next article we shall discuss the Church’s care for relics in prayer and in her liturgy.

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