During the month of November the relics of Saint Therese and Saints Louis and Zelie Martin were welcomed to the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Kilannin, County Galway. This was arranged by Mrs. Gráinne Faherty, whose late husband had been a “Knight of St. Therese.”
Along with parishioners, people from neighbouring parishes and other parts of the county turned out in hundreds to venerate the sacred relics. In a highly reverential atmosphere, people of all ages lined up in procession to show their great affection and respect, particularly for Saint Therese, the Little Flower. Many of them even men, were carrying roses which they touched to the sacred relics.
While a respectful silence was observed everyone was aware that although the focus seemed to be on the relics, the presence of the Lord in the tabernacle was the paramount presence. This was made clear by parish priest, Canon Martin Moran, who drew the people’s attention to the fact that the Lord himself is present in the church and that three members of the Martin family had achieved sainthood because in their lives, they believed in and gave honour to the the Blessed Trinity.
Liturgical practice or just private devotion?
Some people ask if honouring relics is an orthodox devotion or are there links with superstition and is there some connection originating in paganism? Is this a liturgical practice or just private devotion? Finally, does the public honouring of saints’ relics have the approval of the Church?
In attempting to address these questions, we should first consider the nature of authentic relics. Relics are almost always in three categories and it is believed that they have direct associations with the person of the saint. A first class relic is a part of the body of the saint, a strand of hair, or a piece of the flesh or bone. A second class relic is an item owned by the saint, or a fragment of an item such as clothing or some personal object. A third class relic is something touched by the saint or anything that has been touched to a first or second class relic.
The veneration of relics began in the earliest days of the Christian Church. We have a good example of this in the report of the martyrdom of St. Polycarp who was a disciple of John the Apostle and who subsequently became Bishop of Smyrna. An account written in 156 AD tells how following his martyrdom, his remains were gathered as relics:
We took up his bones, which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and 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.
From this we can be sure that from the very beginning, the Church did indeed practice devotion to the relics of her martyrs.
Catholics sometimes feel at a loss in trying to explain some authentic practices to those outside the Church. Due to misguided efforts at ecumenism, we tend perhaps to gloss over exercises that have always been part of Catholic tradition. Praying for the holy souls and gaining indulgences for them is one such practice, as is venerating the relics of saints. Yet when we put our minds to it, is not difficult to find that there are many examples in Scripture supporting healing that can take place through the action of relics.
In the Old Testament we read that when the Israelites left Egypt they took with them the bones of Joseph; in 2 Kings the account is given of how the mantle of Elijah and the bones of Elisha brought about miracles, in the case of the bones of Elisha, a dead person was raised to life. Among all the miracles of Jesus, there is one that stands out because it is different.The gospel of Matthew recounts the miracle that happened when a woman with a severe haemorrhage just touched the hem of the garment of Jesus and was healed instantly.
Later the Acts of the Apostles recounts how people would line the streets with their sick so that when Peter walked past, his shadow would touch them. The same faith was active when the people of Ephesus brought handkerchiefs and aprons and touched them to Paul. Many reports of healing took place and evil spirits were driven out.
Those who do not understand, say that touching relics is akin to magic and superstition. It is important that we counter this argument by claiming that the material object is simply a vehicle for the healing action of God. The cause of healing is always the Lord; it is he who has the power and the relics are the means through which he can act.
Any good that comes about through a relic is God’s doing. But the fact that God chooses to use the relics of saints to work healing and miracles tells us that he wants to draw our attention to the saints as “models and intercessors” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 828).
In the 16th century the Fathers of the Council of Trent made the following pronouncement in regard to relics of saints “the holy bodies of the holy martyrs and of the others who dwell with Christ . . . are to be honoured by the faithful.”
Veneration is not to be confused with worship.
We venerate relics only for the sake of worshiping God. The Church as always, takes care that relics receive the care proper to them. Relics are precious. With regard to first class relics we have to acknowledge that we are looking at flesh or bone that is awaiting the resurrection of the dead. We believe that the soul of the saint now in heaven, will be united with his or her physical remains.
Venerating the relics brings to mind the Church’s teaching on the Communion of Saints, one of the articles of faith that we profess in the Creed. The saints are members of the Church triumphant while we are still pilgrims, the Church Militant. Acknowledging their sanctity, their power to assist us strengthens our understanding of their relationship with us. These are our brothers and sisters in Christ and included in the Eucharistic Prayer we hear the words: “on whose constant intercession in your presence we rely for unfailing help.” This is because those who are canonised and are in heaven, now have an intimate relationship with Christ the Universal King. The veneration of relics also reinforces our belief in everlasting life and the resurrection of the body for all the faithful on the last day.
Veneration is not to be confused with worship and adoration which is reserved for the Lord only. St. Jerome, the great biblical scholar in the fourth century declared “We do not worship, we do not adore, for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the creator, but we venerate the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore him whose martyrs they are.”
Honouring relics of saints is not an obligatory practice but it is something very close to the heart of Irish spirituality.
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