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