The Veneration of Relics of the saints
The name of ‘relic’ is given to the remains of the saints and objects which have been closely connected with Christ or the saints. These relics are placed beneath or upon our alters and they also can pass into the possession of private persons. Only those to which the name of the saint and the episcopal seal is attached are authentic. It is forbidden to sell relics but this prohibition does not extend to the case containing them, which may be valuable in its own right.
From time immemorial, the objects closely connected to Our Lord or the saints have been held in high veneration: for instance, the cross of Christ, His tunic, His winding – sheet, the manger wherein the Infant Jesus was laid, Veronica’s veil (which was used to wipe the face of Jesus by her on His way to Calvary) etc. The holy cross was discovered by the Empress Helena in the year 325, and a portion of it is in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem. A part of the manger is in the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. The seamless coat of Our Lord; for which the soldiers who crucified Him cast lots, is in the Cathedral of Treves (In 1891 when it was exposed for six weeks; of the thousands who came to venerate it, there were eleven authentic cases of miraculous cures). At Argenteuil, near Paris, another garment worn by Our Lord when a child is preserved; it was presented by Charlemagne to the church. The holy winding sheet or shroud of Our Lord is in Turin; Veronica’s veil is in st. Peter’s at Rome. Several other important relics are preserved in the Cathedral of Aix – la- Chapelle. The whole of Palestine is to the Christian a sacred and precious relic as the seven crusades undertaken to recover it from the Saracens in the Middle Ages will testify. The principal holy places are: The place of crucifixion and the sepulchre on Mount Calvary; the scene of Our Lord’s agony and the spot whence He ascended on Mount Olivet; the cenacle on Mount Sion, His birthplace at Bethlehem and the holy house of Nazareth, now at Loreto. At all these places churches were erected, mostly by the Emperor Constantine or his mother, St. Helena. The garments worn by the martyrs and the instruments of their execution, the spots where eminent saints were born or were buried, have always been held in veneration. In many instances churches and alters for the celebration of divine worship have been built over places thus hallowed, especially where the relics of saints are interred.
Relics of the remains of the saints are deserving of veneration for the reason that the bodies of the saints were temples of the Holy Ghost and instruments whereby He worked; and they will rise glorious from the grave. St. Jerome remarks that by honouring the saints, we honour God who made them.
We read in the Old Testament that a dead man was restored to life on coming into contact with the bones of the prophet Eliseus (Kings xiii. 21), St. Augustine recounts numerous cures effected by the relics of St. Stephen in Africa, including the raising from the dead of two children. The shadow of St. Peter (Acts v. 15) and the handkerchiefs or girdles worn by St. Paul (Acts xix. 21) delivered the sick from their infirmities. Of course, it is not by the relics themselves, but by the power of God that these miracles were wrought. Hence it is not a superstitious act on behalf of the faithful to visit places of pilgrimage or venerate relics; when God evidently Himself honours the relics and is pleased to work miracles through them. In some cases, we see that the bodies of the saints have remained incorrupt long after death (e.g. St. Teresa, St. Bernadette, St. Francis Xavier) and in some cases their remains emit a perfume of fragrance.
We see that when the Jews left Egypt, the bones of Joseph were taken with them by Moses; as Joseph had made his children promise they would when the returned to the Promised Land as God had promised that they would at the time that Jacob and his family first came to Egypt to flee from the famine in Chanaan and to afford himself the protection of his son Joseph who
was governor there (Exod. xiii. 19). The early Christians likewise had great respect for relics. When St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, was torn to pieces by lions, two of his companions came by night and gathered up his bones, carrying them to Antioch. When St. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, was burned alive, the Christians collected his ashes, valuing them more than jewels. From an early date is was customary to build chapels or alters above the tombs of martyrs, and offer the Holy Sacrifice over their remains. Relics are usually encased in costly reliquaries, richly decorated; as a mark of the respect and veneration in which they are held. From time immemorial, pilgrimages have been made to the Holy Land and to the tombs of the apostles and the sepulchres of the saints. St. John Chrysostom said that “we visit the sepulchres of the saints and prostrate ourselves there in order to obtain some of the graces which we need”.
Above all representations of the saints or of holy things, we venerate the cross of Our Redeemer. Such is the honour in which the Church holds the cross of Christ, that she allows no sacrament to be administered, no Mass to be celebrated, no act of divine worship to be performed except in the presence of a crucifix. The cross is seen on the crown of a monarch, on the breast of a bishop, and is awarded as decoration to men of merit. The cross is in the hand of the Christian when he draws his last breath and it accompanies him to the grave. The sacred symbol of the cross; through which we were redeemed ought on no account to be absent from any house or important building.
When we venerate the cross, we adore He who died upon it, not the image. When we kiss the Bible or the Book of the Gospels; we venerate the Word of God contained therein, not the book itself. When incense is burned or candles lighted before an image of a saint; it is as a symbol of the light of the Holy Ghost and the virtues wherewith the saints were endowed. None but a heathen would imagine that there is any virtue or power in the image itself. Moses did not suppose that his staff worked miracles but knew that it was God who powerfully assisted him and that the staff was a symbol or outward sign of the power of God and of God’s grace.