We Took Up His Bones: The Significance of Venerating Relics

Recently I took up the task of re-organizing cupboards, drawers, and files at home. Some of the things I do not use daily but consider important enough to keep offer a bittersweet mixture of memories. More sweet than bitter now are items that remind me of my father, who died fifteen years ago this month. The surprise discovery was a hastily sketched diagram of my father’s family tree. It is in my handwriting so I must have asked him to tell me all he could remember some time before he died. Although I was ruthless in discarding things I no longer needed, I carefully slid this paper back into the folder with a plan to transcribe the diagram into an electronic format for preservation. Otherwise, I revisited items that I know very well: dad’s silver pen, his harmonica, a cardigan. I don’t bring them out too often because although they carry the fondest memories they also evoke the strongest longing. Focusing on items that belonged to a loved one we miss is a powerful act of devotion. When I hold dad’s pen I recall the vigour reflected in his handwriting. When I pick up the harmonica I hear not only the music but also the joyful laughter that accompanied those occasions when he played. When I wear the cardigan, I almost feel his arms around me. These somatic, physical reminders are usually a comfort though sometimes too much to bear. More than a memory in and of themselves, the items convey the actions, personality, and relationships of the person we love, inviting us to experience that love again and to continue sharing that love in the world. For the same reason, Catholics venerate the relics of the saints.

 “The religious sense of the Christian people has always found expression in various forms of piety surrounding the Church’s sacramental life.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1674). One of the earliest examples of the veneration of relics comes from the second century after the Bishop of Smyrna, St. Polycarp, suffered martyrdom by burning at the stake. The Church of Smyrna wrote a letter to the rest of the Church describing the events surrounding the martyrdom. Near the end of the letter, the authors explain the dual purpose of veneration of the body: commemoration of the one who has died and training for those who continue to live the faith. 

And so we afterwards 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 birth-day of his martyrdom for the commemoration of those that have already fought in the contest, and of the training and preparation of those that shall do so hereafter. (The Martyrdom of Polycarp, trans. J. G. Lightfoot, accessed January 10, 2018).

Consider that the martyrs are those who suffered bodily and lost their life in the flesh on account of their faith in Christ. Therefore, it is not incidental that the faithful of Smyrna venerated not an abstract symbol of their Bishop but the remains of his physical body, which was the vehicle for his witness to the faith. God works through the instruments of the saints on earth and so the relic of a saint does not have magical power but is a sign of God’s work. By venerating the relic, we show that God’s work in the saint’s life of holiness is to continue in the world through us.

Our faith is incarnational; our salvation rests upon God taking human flesh, followed by the suffering and death of that flesh, and its resurrection on the third day. The veneration of a bodily relic may seem gruesome considering that we rightly concentrate on loving life, saving lives, and protecting life. However, if we pause to consider with the eyes of faith, we realise that the crucifixion was gruesome and the mortal body does die. But the gruesome aspect is only half the picture. The eyes of faith also see the glory of the resurrection. At the end of the Nicene Creed we profess that we look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. We profess our belief not only in Jesus’ resurrection but also our belief that “God, in his almighty power, will definitively grant incorruptible life to our bodies by reuniting them with our souls, through the power of Jesus’s Resurrection.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 997). The bodily relic of a saint that strikes us as gruesome is in actuality a reminder of the dignity due to all human bodies. As St. Paul taught, the body, a temple of the Holy Spirit, is relevant even after death.

What of the commandment to worship God alone? Devotional practices, such as the veneration of relics, must be properly understood and be experienced as an extension of the liturgical life of the Church so that they advance the knowledge of the mystery of Christ and do not become permeated by superstition (cf. Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 13). Classical theology makes a distinction between adoration (latria) and veneration (dulia). Adoration is worship due to God as the Creator. Veneration is a sign of reverence or respect shown to a created person. Our religious practice reflects this distinction. The gesture of genuflection is a sign of adoration and is therefore reserved for God alone in the Most Blessed Sacrament and for the Holy Cross from the solemn adoration during Good Friday until the beginning of the Easter Vigil. Only God is to be adored so it is not appropriate to genuflect towards a relic of a saint. To show respect to the saint for his or her holy life in a gesture of veneration, you might bow your head, kiss, or touch the relic or case in which the relic is held (called a reliquary). Relics are often born in procession, shown to the sick or the dying, and an impetus for asking the intercession of the saint for healing. If the faithful are blessed with the relic, they should kneel during that blessing.

It may be difficult to look with bodily eyes on the forearm of St. Francis Xavier that you are invited to venerate in our diocese on January 21 or 22, 2018. Yet, in the same way as the items used by my father inspire me through their physical qualities to experience and take up the inner qualities of his love, so the bodily relics of the saints, gazed upon with the eyes of faith, invite us to recognize God’s work in the saint’s holy life and to continue that work in our own lives. 

By Dr. Simone Brosig
Director of Liturgy, Diocese of Calgary

Related Offices Office of Liturgy
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33rd Annual Outdoor Way of the Cross

The Stations of the Cross has become one of the most popular Catholic devotions. It has sometimes been referred to as a pilgrimage in prayer, meditation and song. It is more than a narration of the final hours of the life of our Lord here on earth, it is a way to pray and meditate on Christ's suffering for us.

The Outdoor Way of the Cross brings us closer to Christ as we reflect on the great love he showed for us in His most sorrowful Passion. The object of the Stations of the Cross is to help us, albeit in spirit, make a pilgrimage to the primary scenes where Jesus suffered and died. The essential spirit of the way of the cross is the procession, and performing this ritual action outdoors takes us beyond the metaphor of walking with Jesus on the way to his crucifixion. It allows us to be in solidarity with Him as we bear our own crosses out of love for Him.

The 33rd Annual Outdoor Way of the Cross will take place on March 25 this year. For many, this diocesan event has become part of their Lenten tradition. Join us as we walk along the inner city route, stopping at 'Stations' that serve some of the most vulnerable in our community. If you or your parish group are interested in carrying the cross or assisting with the event in another capacity, please contact the Social Justice office at (403) 218-5519 as soon as possible. You may also visit for more information.

Related Offices Social Justice Carillon
Related Themes Devotions Prayers Holy Week

Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II: Saints for Our Time

On April 27, 2014, Pope Francis will canonize Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II as models of faith for people in the 21st century.  The uniqueness of each saint reinforces our awareness that the primary vocation of every one is to become the unique person God created her or him to be.  Becoming true to ourselves makes each of us a genuine person capable of relating to every other human being.  Saints show us what it means to become an authentic self, free of egotism and therefore able to care for others beginning with anyone whom society excludes or abandons.  We may contemplate the lives of John XXIII and John Paul II as inviting us to three practices: (a) love our families; (b) cultivate an interior life; and (c) be a global citizen in solidarity with the 6,000,000, 000 people on the planet today.

Love and Learn from Our Family of Origin

John XXIII and John Paul II became great human beings in large part because they worked through the challenges that their families faced.  Each of them had a photograph of his parents on his papal desk.  These were portraits of courage.  Angelo Roncalli (John XXIII) was the fourth of 13 children in a family of farmers who could not afford to own their own land.  Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II) was the youngest of three children and experienced grief from his earliest years as his sister died in infancy before he was born, his mother died when he was nine years old, his brother died when his was 12 years old, and his father died when he was 20 years old.  From childhood each man learned to seek life in God, which his parents' lives had illustrated was stronger than death.

Cultivate an Interior Life 

Angelo Roncalli was a man of the heart who had a rich devotional piety that shines throughout his spiritual diary, The Journal of a Soul.  Karol Wojtyla was a scholar who wrote monographs on the life of God indwelling human beings according to the 16th century Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross and the 20th century German philosopher Max Scheler.  Their daily practices of meditation and mindfulness, grounded in their baptism and the Eucharist, brought Roncalli and Wojtyla into communion with God which enabled each of them to connect with people everywhere.  Cheering crowds greeted John XXIII and John Paul II wherever they went as people were drawn by the magnetism of their love and wisdom that originated in God rather than the human ego, thanks in large measure to their contemplative practices that generated compassion.

Be a Global Citizen

Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council while Pope John Paul II implemented it.  This was an "ecumenical" Council that brought the world together as it included 2,100 Roman Catholic bishops, as well as observers from Eastern Orthodox churches, the Anglican Communion, and communities of the Reformation.  The Council opened up dialogue with Judaism and Islam, the great religious traditions of the East, and indigenous traditions across the world.  These popes spoke to all people in their great social encyclicals such as "Peace on Earth" (John XXIII) and "On Social Concern" (John Paul II).  They invited the faithful to be truly "catholic" as global citizens who practice the virtue of solidarity, which the Council had introduced and Pope John Paul described as "…a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all."  May these saints inspire us to embody the Good News of God's unconditional love for every person alive today.  

Article written by Dr. Michael Duggan (CWL Chair for Catholic Studies at St. Mary's University College) 

Bishop Henry will celebrate a diocesan Mass to mark the canonization of John XXIII and John Paul II on Tuesday April 29, 2014 at 7pm in St. Mary's Cathedral. All are welcome!

Related Offices Office of Liturgy
Related Themes Saints Devotions Discipleship Christian Life Prayer Life

Prayer to Popes St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II

Holy shepherds of our own time, 
compassionate servants of the servants of God
through you the Second Vatican Council 
brought the world together
and called each of us to cultivate
the virtue of solidarity with all peoples.

Intercede for us, so that, following your example,
we may always seek our life in God,
work for the common good,
and embody the Good News of God's
unconditional love for all people.

By your witness of contemplation and devotion,
may we too come into union
with the Trinity, in this life and the next.

Saint John XXIII, father of the Council, pray for us.
Saint John Paul II, universal pastor, pray for us.

Prayer: Diocese of Calgary, 2014

Related Offices Office of Liturgy
Related Themes Saints Devotions Prayers Christian Life

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