Sunday, November 05, 2023

On Devotion To and Care for Relics (Part 3): Guest Article by Mr Sean Pilcher

Since today is the most common day for the feast of the Holy Relics, we now conclude this 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. and part 2. Our thanks to Mr Pilcher once again for sharing his work with us.

Part Three – Repairing and Caring for Relics

The presentation of relics has varied considerably through the centuries, but standard practice now is to place a relic inside a small, round (usually metal) reliquary case called a theca, which is sealed with red threads and the wax seal of the authority who prepared the relic. Next to the relic is enclosed a label, normally in Latin, indicating what it is. The wax seal with its threads holds it in place and ensures that it has not been altered or removed. Sometimes age and travel can break these threads or make a seal difficult to read. Much of my work with relics includes the identification and repair of these elements.

The authentication paper for a relic of St Aloysius Gonzaga. 
I should note that the distribution of relics is fundamentally different from cremation and the scattering of ashes, even though they bear some superficial similarities. Cremation is a practice of the ancient pagans, who had no anticipation of the resurrection; the body was rarely regarded with the reverence it now has in our day. It would be burned and even scattered; no one any longer had need or use for lifeless flesh. (For a taste of the kind of bleak outlook the ancients had on the afterlife, simply read half a dozen Roman headstones.) We, however, have hope in the resurrection, and acknowledge that our bodies are temples of the living God. Again, St John Damascene explains: “In the old law, whoever touched a dead person was deemed unclean, but 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.” The bodies of the baptized are sacred, to be revered and cherished with care even after the soul has departed. Only during the appropriate time in the process of canonization does the Church allow, under certain norms, that relics of holy men and women be distributed for veneration.

This practice, then, of making more relics available for the cult of the saints, stands to affirm the resurrection of the dead, not deny it. The saints in Heaven are alive and at work among us, as it is written in Sirach (46, 14), “that their memory might be blessed, and their bones spring up out of their place.” God wants to glorify His saints, and He is glorified in them; when we honor them, we also honor Him who made them. Saint Jerome testifies to this: “We honor the relics of the martyrs, so that we may adore Him whose martyrs they are. We honor the servants, so that the honor of the servants might redound to their Lord.”

The removal of so-called “accretions” in the practice of the faith in the latter half of the last century saw a jettisoning of holy relics from parishes and religious communities. Horror stories are told of prominent churches “disposing” of these now unnecessary treasures in bonfires outside the church. Hoards of relics were thrown out or sold (something never allowed) from convents during the commotion. Religious and laity with the wherewithal scooped them up for safekeeping until a better day.

A prelate recently remarked to me that Europe especially has been “hemorrhaging relics,” a sign of the times, and a true indicator of the level of catechesis in our days. Nevertheless, the Church’s magisterial teaching on sacred relics has never changed; the Council of Trent offers its characteristic, refreshing clarity. “Those who hold that veneration and honor is not due to the relics of the saints, are to be wholly condemned, just as the Church condemned them before.” Despite all this, I find no cause for despair. Faithful Christians have an earnest desire to preserve the bones of the saints, they are eager to spread devotion. I trained with one of only a handful of experts who still work on preparing relics, a now almost defunct craft, and, through the generosity and interest of so many faithful, we founded an apostolate called Sacra: Relics of the Saints.

Our purpose is to work with religious superiors, pastors, and postulators to return relics to places of honor, and to ensure their reverential treatment. This apostolate prepares and identifies relics, as well as providing repairs, authentication, and documentation. The process is an involved one, but is not immune to daydreams of Indiana Jones traveling to faraway oratories and saving relics from the hands of the godless. The work requires a (rather niche) combination of relic knowledge, Latin, paleography, artifact restoration, Church history, and heraldry. There is no school for it, and most of its traditions and conventions are passed down orally. Part of the goal of Sacra is to make some more general information about relics more readily available and put parishes, clergy, and layfolk into contact with our experts.

I remember once, in a dimly lit chapel where monks chant their office, approaching a relic of Saint John of Damascus beneath the icons he so ferociously defended. Censer bells clinked and the gold leaf faces of the saints looked soberly down on the wax candles that illuminated them. Behind a veil of incense sat a folded parchment in a brass reliquary with a faded wax seal. I stepped closer to the glass as the frankincense filled my nose, read San Giovanni Damasceno, and saw the coat of arms of an Italian prelate. Later, Father Abbot agreed to let me examine this mysterious sealed parchment. I had seen paquets like it before, and they are generally rare. I thought that parchment probably contained bones of Saint John of Damascus, destined to be placed in an altar stone, and therefore not placed in a more visible reliquary. After carefully documenting the seal and opening the parchment with the team at Sacra, we discovered a relic of the flesh of Saint John. It bore the seal of the bishop who had custody of the Damascene’s relics, and was carefully wrapped to preserve it. We set this precious relic into a gold reliquary, sealed it, and documented it to tell its millennium’s worth of history. It now sits, more visible and adorned, again among the icons in church for the veneration of the faithful.
This kind of authentication is a large part of our work. Documentation becomes lost, relics are borrowed (and sometimes never returned), people who have them in their custody die, and anything glued eventually needs repair. Our apostolate has custody of numerous relics, and an even larger library of references, resources, and contacts. It is often possible to use these to reissue documentation or evaluate a relic’s pedigree of ownership, preparation, and authenticity. Parishes, religious communities, diocesan archives, and individuals have been sending their relics for evaluation and repair for years. The work is meticulous and extraordinarily detail-focused. A small fragment of Saint Philip the Apostle is being housed in a new, more elaborate reliquary for parish veneration. A piece of Cardinal Newman’s vestments set into gold and enamel for a local shrine. These are precious treasures which cannot be lightly dealt with, and cannot be replaced. There is no such thing as more relics of a saint, so they cannot be allowed to be discarded or lost. The recent renewed interest in relics has unfortunately also meant more forgeries.

Relics are holy objects, and sale of relics is absolutely forbidden in the law of the Church. Still, eBay is replete with chicken bones and aged gauze housed behind glass and watered silk, waiting to abuse the piety of well-meaning faithful. Of course, there are some authentic relics on eBay, but it requires the highest level of expertise to scout them out. Pastors and religious superiors should consult experts before taking up arms on a digital bidding crusade. Forgers can amass enormous sums as Catholics bid against one another in a fight for a very well-done fake. Recently, a purported relic of Saint Pius of Pietralcina sold for thousands, even boasting paperwork and a seal—and yet it was undoubtedly a phony. Meanwhile, an unassuming, yet doubtless authentic relic of an obscure Roman martyr being sold by an unknowing dealer was donated, after our team explained the delicate situation, for merely the price of shipping.
The author holding a relic of Bl. Hughes of Fosses, an early companion of St Norbert and the first Abbot of Prémontré.
The business of relics is a tricky one. While it is absolutely forbidden to sell a relic, we may take the example of Saint Louis of France, who rescued the Crown of Thorns from Muslim hands. When relics are in the hands of secular dealers or unknowing antiquarians, it is licit to make some financial contribution in order to return them to Catholic ownership. The relics acquired are always donated to parishes or religious houses associated with the saint whose relics are rescued, to faithful who will cherish them. This kind of work requires certainty about the relics’ origins and much experience and familiarity with other relics.

The study and veneration of sacred relics is much needed, especially now. It gets us out of our heads and into our bodies, and shows their place as temples of the Most High. Its link to sacred tradition necessarily connects us to our holy forebears, and gives us strength and grace to follow in the footsteps of the saints. Relics root us firmly on the earth, while fixing our eyes on Heaven.

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