Wednesday, November 01, 2023

On Devotion To and Care for Relics (Part 2): Guest Article by Mr Sean Pilcher

This article is the second 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. Click here to read part 1. 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 Two – Relics in the Church, in the liturgy

In the previous article of this series, we covered the ancient and Biblical basis for the veneration of relics. In this article we shall focus on their liturgical significance.

The Church keeps her holy relics with great care, just as a mother keeps her sons. She blesses the faithful throughout the year with the saints who crown her. The apostolic Tradition of venerating relics continues even now. The Church envisions that altars contain the relics of the saints, ideally the martyrs, in a stone which is anointed with sacred chrism by the bishop, who consecrates it and seals in the relics. This is one reason why, even if the Blessed Sacrament is not reserved on an altar, one should bow in reverence to the relics housed there. Relics constitute a holy inheritance, like the rest of Tradition, which we treasure, venerate, and lovingly preserve for future generations to share.
But what of venerating relics? As with much of modern catechesis, there is much explanation of theory, and little physical praxis. Our modern attitude toward worship carries some of the pride of the Enlightenment; religion is more a thing to think than a thing to do. We would learn much from simply watching how our ancestors in the faith acted in church. Relics are a physical thing, so is our veneration of them. To venerate a relic one can bow, cross oneself, or kiss the relic or its reliquary. We kneel when a priest blesses us with a relic, since we kneel whenever Christ’s own anointed call down the power of the Most High. Bowing and even prostrations to pay reverence to relics are common in the Christian East. Genuflecting is reserved for the relics of the Passion, such as the True Cross. This special class of relics are veiled when not exposed for veneration; we shall focus on them more closely in another article. Relics exposed for veneration are flanked by lit candles.
Relics presented for the veneration of the faithful at the FSSP church in Rome, Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini, on All Saints’ day of last year.
While relics are a fleshy, tangible part of our practice of the Faith, they nevertheless play an important role in the spiritual order. Saint Thomas Aquinas (who always wore a relic of Saint Agnes round his neck) reminds us that, while a soul in Heaven enjoys the beatific vision, some essential part of the whole, viz. the body, is lacking until the final judgement. When we say, “Saint Peter is in Heaven,” we really mean “The soul of Saint Peter is in Heaven.” The flipside of this truth is that while that person is present in Heaven, he is also still very truly connected to his body on Earth. Man is not a soul alone; the body is not simply the shell of the soul; it is really you. The work of the Saints done in Heaven, then, is also wrought here on Earth.
This connection is one well known to exorcists, who use relics in their treatment of the spiritually oppressed; relics are not simply holy souvenirs or reminders. Saint John of Damascus puts it beautifully: “Christ the Lord granted us the relics of the Saints as fonts of salvation, from which very many benefits come to us.” Relics are officially recognized during the canonization process. After the cause for canonization is opened, the local bishop or superior may authorize the distribution of devotional materials and prayers for the intercession of the holy man or woman in question.
The relics of the martyr St Josaphat (Kuntsevych), photographed during a recognitio in 1982, when they were also clothed with new vestments. (Photograph courtesy of the Rev. Dr Athanasius McVay.)  
The penultimate step in the canonization process, the declaration as Blessed, is usually accompanied by a canonical recognitio. The local ordinary (usually the bishop), the postulator (leader of the cause for sainthood), and a medical team examine the body, and often move it from a crypt or cemetery to a more prominent place for veneration. During this recognitio, a postulator or his delegate may take relics from the blessed’s tomb to prepare in reliquaries for distribution to churches for public veneration. Relics of the bones, skin, hair, etc., are normally called “first-class relics,” while things owned by the saint, their clothing, Rosary beads, breviaries, are called “second-class” relics. These, strictly speaking, are the only classes or kinds of relics. Cloth, however, is sometimes touched to these two classes of relics and distributed for aid in devotion; these are the so-called “third-class” relics.
The faithful, too, will often touch sacramentals of their own (rosaries, medals, etc.) to the relics of the saints for their devotion. Since there are no first-class relics of the Lord, the relics associated with the Passion, such as the True Cross, are considered first-class.
It is fitting that the relics of the saints be exposed for veneration on their feasts, or on days associated with them. They are displayed on gradines of the altar during Mass, or upon a plinth near the altar rail. After Mass, or at another appropriate time, the faithful come to the altar rail to receive a blessing. The priest, wearing a stole of the colour of the day, blesses them as they kiss or touch the reliquary saying a formula such as: ‘Per intercessiónem Sancti Ioannis, Apóstoli et Evangelistae, líberet te Deus ab omni malo, in nómine Patris + et Filii, et Spíritus Sancti. Amen.’ changing the italicized words according to the name of the Saint. A minister may accompany the priest with a purificator to wipe the reliquary between blessings.
All Saints’ Day is a worthy time to display all the parish’s relics. Another custom is to announce each relic and to bless the faithful with each one from the sanctuary, afterward the Litany of the Saints could be chanted. The Church also keeps a feast of the Holy Relics, whose date has varied some. The Mass formulary is found in the back of any good missal and could be legitimately used in any place.
Relics displayed on All Saints’ Day at the church of St John Cantius in Chicago; from our second All Saints’ and All Souls’ photopost of 2020.
In the next article of this series, we shall discuss the care for relics, and the neglect they have suffered in recent years, as well as the work of Sacra: Relics of the Saints.

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