In the homes of many Catholics, there are certain religious possessions that are priceless: the family Bible, passed down through the generations; a rosary, prayed with so fervently in times of distress; a vial of holy water, picked up on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Without the stories, the memories and the deeper connection to Christ behind these items, they would be nothing more than symbols.
Relics, defined by Catholic teaching as objects or actual remains (flesh, bone or blood) of or related to a saint or Jesus, have been venerated by Catholics for centuries. Though not to be worshipped, they are a part of Catholic tradition meant to bring us closer to Christ and the saints.
“It’s meant to inspire devotion that’s the point. If you’re giving greater prominence to the thing itself than to the faith you should be practicing you’re failing in the intention,” said Father Erik Pohlmeier, director of faith formation and permanent diaconate formation in the Diocese of Little Rock. “Reading the story of the life of the saint can help us, simply recalling in our mind in prayer the life of the saint can help us, but we naturally gravitate toward material things, tangible things more easily which is why the Church uses bells and incense and colors and candles and stained glass and all that. It just takes into account human nature.”
Veneration of relics is most commonly traced back to St. Polycarp, who was burned at the stake around 155 A.D. Accounts of his death, written by the Smyrnaeans, stated, “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,” according to Catholic.com.
In the Middle Ages, churches were built because of relics to draw the people.
“There’s a church in Rome that claims to have a little glass vial of the darkness that covered Egypt, which is ridiculous, of course,” Father Pohlmeier said.
There are no set rules on how to venerate a relic, but having an intention is a starting point.
“You’re not going to get better prayers from them because the relic is there, but it makes it easier for us to overcome our own skepticism or doubt,” he said.
There is no Church process for acquiring relics and not every relic is authentic.
“There is such a thing as an authentic relic. The Vatican does have a responsibility with that,” Father Pohlmeier said. “If you get a relic and it is authentic, it will have some documentation that goes with that.”
However, if a Catholic venerates a relic that has not been authenticated, it is not cause for concern.
“The point of it, the relic, is not the value in itself. It’s about inspiring devotion, drawing us to the life of the saint,” Father Pohlmeier said.
Father Carlos Martins of the Companions of the Cross is a relics expert who established Treasures of the Church, a ministry that brings relics to churches to teach about their importance. In 2013, Father Martins visited several Arkansas churches, shedding light on how relics like the True Cross (the cross Jesus died on) and clothing items can be authentic, including a relic that is part of the garment Mary wore at Jesus’ birth.
“You might look at that and say, ‘Well, that’s impossible, how can that be?’ But he can trace historically, first of all, the mentality of people. They would preserve something if you consider somebody to be holy. It’s certainly no stretch to think people around them would preserve their stuff … we still do that,” Father Pohlmeier said.
Church altars were required to have a relic from a martyr encased often in an altar stone. In 1969, with the second edition of the Roman Missal, it was no longer mandated, but churches often still keep the tradition.
“The point is the unity of God’s family and that unity is expressed in all these layers at the same time -- the direct unity of receiving the Eucharist, the broader unity of the congregation and the whole Church, but it’s never separated from the unity of the communion of saints, of God’s family,” Father Pohlmeier said. “So all of that is captured in a physical way with the relic being present at the heart of that unity, that communion.”
The House of Formation in Little Rock has several relics, including the True Cross donated by retired priest Msgr. Bernard Malone.
“That was given to him by St. John Paul II, so that has a very important meaning for our seminarians there,” said Father Rubén Quinteros, administrator of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in North Little Rock (Marche) and former prefect of the House of Formation. “That is a special relic.”
During the Year of Mercy, the chapel at the house has displayed relics for seminarians and pilgrims to venerate that were previously stored in the diocesan archives.
“They were very touched by the idea that they can just have that contact with the saints, the time to pray to the saints,” he said, adding he hopes the display will stay. “I think it was a very powerful witness of our faith to have the relics there for veneration.”
Monasteries typically have relics and at Subiaco Abbey, tucked in a back hallway, visitors can peruse and pray with the several hundred relics on shelves and in reliquaries. Father Hugh Assenmacher, OSB, archivist at Subiaco, said most of the relics do not have documentation and are from Switzerland where the founders of the abbey came. Newer ones, including bones from St. Thèrése of Lisieux and St. Meinrad, are authenticated.
“Some of these … go back to the 1600s. There are a couple of fairly large bones, I guess they would be leg bones, there are tops of skulls, obscure saints that no one has heard of. They’re encased in fancy (reliquaries),” Father Assenmacher said.
When a monk is professing their final vows, some of the larger, ornate reliquaries are placed around the altar with candles in front of them. The profession of vows includes the language that a monk is professing in front of “the abbot, the community and the relics of the saints who are in this monastery.”
For parishioners of St. John the Baptist Latin Mass Community, about 17 relics are continually displayed on either side of the altar at St. Patrick Church in North Little Rock. Father Michael Magiera, who owns most of the relics, which range from the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to St. Pius X, said in the extraordinary form of the Mass, the end of the offertory prayer makes reference to relics.
“Very often in Latin Mass parishes, I have at least once or twice, a relic is openly venerated,” Father Magiera said. “It’s taken to the Communion rail and people kiss it.”
“Relics are not magic wands or anything like that, but I think people look at the altar here with deeper reverence,” because the relics are present, he added.
Our Lady of the Holy Souls in Little Rock has six relics, which include St. Frances Cabrini and the True Cross, displayed in an ambry as people walk in, said church secretary Cindy Stabnick.
While parishioners aren’t often seen venerating the relics, Stabnick said they are important to the faith.
“I think it’s important to have relics because it’s our heritage. It’s part of our history; it draws people closer” to the saints, making them “more real,” she said. “It’s something from that person; that person’s a saint and that saint is in heaven. That is very special.”
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