Monday, November 12, 2012

Relics: A Human Thing?

Pope Benedict venerates relics "ex sanguine" of Blessed John Paul II during his beatification ceremony

Last Thursday the Fraternity in London held a Mass in honour of Blessed John Paul II, in accordance with the Indult granted by Rome.  The relic of the Blessed Pontiff was present, and I had the privilege of offering the Mass. We had a great crowd, and a beautiful choir provided the music – the Happy Day Gospel Choir.   Members of our monthly prayer group were joined by other devotees of Blessed John Paul, and people from the arts and film industry. 

As noted by my colleague, Caroline McCamley, we were covered by the Catholic Herald.  In fact I was in the airport when I got the call from the journalist: the article was quite good, so I hope it will help bring more attention to the London group who meet faithfully every month.

Some of the comments at the end of the article were interesting.  The Catholic Herald has its regular trolls who denigrate various articles and the doctrines and teaching of the Catholic faith, and it seems some of the trolls popped up over the bridge in response to our article.  This time it was the cult of relics.

I suppose for some non-Catholics and even for some in the Church the veneration of relics may seem odd and perhaps ghastly – I think one commenter (troll?) called us “ghouls” for venerating the relic of Blessed John Paul: curious.   The veneration of relics is an ancient practice and not confined to Catholicism.  Buddhism, much beloved of many critics of the Catholic faith, cherishes relics of Buddha, not only items associated with him, but also his ashes and other bodily remains which are enshrined in stupas and attract numerous pilgrims. The relic of Buddha’s tooth, saved from cremation, is venerated in Sri Lanka, for example.   The tooth is regarded as a symbolic representation of the living Buddha, and so various rituals and ceremonies have grown up around the relic. 

Buddha's tooth, venerated as a relic by Buddhists

Muslims also venerate relics of Mohammed and other holy people in their faith – Muslims could hardly be accused of idolatry by critics of the cult of relics.  Mohammed’s tomb is a place of pilgrimage, and among his relics cherished by his followers is a lock of his hair and his cloak. 

Relics of Mohammed venerated by Muslims

Indeed, while we are at it, we’ll push the boat out and remind our critics that even atheists cherish relics: the veneration shown to the bodies of Lenin and, for a time, Stalin, reveals that even those who do not believe in God, still feel the need for some form of the cult of relics, recognising by their “devotion” that there is something positive and distinctly human in this practice. 

Lenin's body venerated by his devotees

In terms of Christianity, relics have been part of the devotional life of the faithful from the beginning.  During St Paul’s lifetime, for example, people obtained relics of him – handkerchiefs which had touched him, and these were instrumental in the healing of the sick (Acts 19:11-12).  The devotional life of the Church since then has included relics, most potently those of the martyrs which were venerated in memory of the sacrifice they had made for Christ.   God has worked through this devotion to relics, working miracles, but most importantly bringing people closer to himself through his Saints. 

That said, there have been abuses, and these must not be encouraged.  The Church is quite strict when it comes to these and reminds the faithful that relics are a means to faith, not faith itself.  Relics are also the remains of human beings and so they must also be respected and cared for.  In the past, in the quest for relics, some grisly things were done to the remains of the Saints – such things must not be repeated: the bodies of the Saints must now be respected and preserved – when relics are taken it must be done with respect for the integrity of the body.  No one “owns” a relic, they are merely custodians, and relics must be protected and safely passed on for future generations.  Relics can never be sold, that is a sin.  If money changes hands it must only be to cover the costs of the preparation of the relics.

Relics are venerated rather than worshiped – they are not the object of faith, but a help to faith.  In venerating a relic we venerate the Saint or Blessed who is to bring us closer to God.  They are like keep-sakes, but more sacred since they are the blessed remains of the holy ones.  When used correctly, relics can bring great joy and assistance to the faithful.  I had one such experience of this recently. 

Fraternity Relic of Blessed John Paul II.

A few days after the Fraternity received the relic of Blessed John Paul I got a call from a friend who told me of a lady who was dying and who had a great devotion to Blessed John Paul: she asked me if I could give her a blessing with the relic.   I called into the hospital to see the woman.  She was a good woman who had dedicated her life to the sick and dying herself, and she was suffering greatly.  As soon as she received the relic her face was transformed with joy – she said that John Paul had come to visit her as she was preparing to die.  As she told people later, peace flooded her soul and all fear passed away.  She lived for another couple of weeks, but her family say that from that day she was joyful and serene and died a peaceful, holy death.  Through his relic, Blessed John Paul came to her and assured her of his presence and prayers. 

I have no doubt that God, Our Lady and Pope John Paul were already with the lady, but the Lord used the relic of the Pontiff as a tangible sign to remind her that they were there with her and she need not be afraid.   God can used relics to bring comfort and hope, and to assure the Church on earth of the prayers and loving care of the Church in heaven.  The pilgrimage of the relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux around the world is one such blessing: millions, many facing difficulties in their lives, have been lifted up by the visit of the relics of the Little Flower to their country.

So abuses aside, when properly understood, the veneration of relics can bring many blessings and increase our faith.

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