Why do relics, which featured in the papal canonisations, play a key role in church?
Veneration of relics brings us to the heart of Catholic Christianity
Floribeth Mora Diaz places the reliquary containing a relic of PopeJohn Paul II alongside that of Pope Paul XXIII during the historic double canonisation ceremony for past pontiffs on Saturday. Photograph: Jacek Turczyk
In 2001 the relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux were brought to Ireland, thousands flocked to see them and to pray. Since then we have had scandal after scandal in the Catholic Church. Yet last October the relics of St Anthony of Padua toured Ireland and again people flocked to see them and to pray. The relics, a piece of bone from the saint’s rib and a layer of skin, were afforded great respect.
Why? From the outside, it all seems strange. It was only recently, sitting in the chapel of the Redemptorist community at Marianella in Rathgar, Dublin, that the concept of relics began to make sense. People were coming to pay their respects to Fr Alec Reid, the Redemptorist who had done such amazing work in Northern Ireland.
Alec was dead, his body lying in his coffin, embalmed. He was, as Catholic teaching would profess, enjoying being in the presence of God, in heaven, or at least “en route”. Yet people were flocking to pay their respects to this dead body, this relic. Most, I would suggest, who came that day, had never known Alec, nor any members of his family.
Yet people came to visit this relic, and pray, just as a few months beforehand they had come to pay their respects to the relics of St Anthony.
Ancient Catholic tradition
The veneration of relics is a strong and ancient Catholic tradition. The theology of this practice needs careful articulation, for if we stop with Alec, or Anthony or Thérèse, we have got it wrong.
Relics traditionally are body parts, or material objects that have been in contact with the saint or holy person, things they have used in their earthly life. The things are afforded sacred dignity less because of the sanctity of the person and more because they remind us of the power of God who has worked marvellous things through frail human beings.
Indeed far from regarding relics as belonging to a bygone era of superstitious belief one could say that the veneration of relics brings us to the heart of Catholic Christianity.
Christianity is unashamedly a material religion. The cornerstone of the faith is that the second person of the trinity took on human flesh, God became human, in this way making possible the divinisation of humanity. The dignity of the human person is unequivocally affirmed.
Just as Christ has died and risen so too shall we.
A deep expression of this materialist understanding of religion finds expression in the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church. Material things, “stuff”, become communications of divine power. Bread and wine, oil and water, become sites where the holiness of God resides.
The veneration of relics stems from this positive attitude towards corporeality and the material world. Among the early Christians the bodily presence of those who witnessed to the faith, the martyrs, came to be recognised as the place where the holiness of God dwelt.
Initially people prayed at the tombs of martyrs, and slowly this veneration spread to their relic body parts, as well as to objects that had been in contact with the holy person.
Need for balance
Undoubtedly there have been many false relics, and unsavoury accounts of bodies being dismembered so people can have parts of a holy person. These scandals bring into question not the validity of the theology of the goodness of matter, but rather speak of the need for balance.
Christianity, Catholicism, is constantly challenged to find and hold to the median between opposing errors. When it comes to relics there are two excesses to be avoided – a ridiculing of the practice, and excessive superstition regarding relics.
The veneration of relics is a practice that serves to remind Catholics of the goodness and power of a God who chooses to work through frail humans. The veneration of relics speaks of the goodness of matter and in particular of the human creature, for God took on human flesh.
Many gathered to pay respect to the relic of Alec Reid, giving concrete recognition to the fact that the holiness of God resided in him. People gathered to give thanks to the God who worked through the willing flesh of Alec to bring about great good in Ireland.