By: Jack Long
The Church stands out in a world of secularism in that it maintains humanity’s ancient tradition of revering the corpses, bones, and artifacts of heroic and (more importantly) holy people, a tradition that can appear strange in a demystified world. There is no denying the historical value or simply the fascinating quality of Christian artifacts such as the Shroud of Turin (bearing the photonegative image of an ancient torture victim alleged to be Christ) or the Portiuncula (a chapel renovated where St. Francis of Assisi lived, worked, spoke with Christ, and died).
However, using encounters with these hallows as a time for prayer or grace can be perceived as a type of idolatry where the objects themselves are worshipped. Not helping matters is that these second-class relics are only considered holy by their contact with first-hand relics, which are the actual remains of the saints. Naturally, the first-class relics tend to be the more disturbing ones. If a holy object alone can disturb the modern person, then a holy heart split from a holy body taken from a holy grave are likely to make said modern run from the Catholic Church like it was going to rip his heart out. Its healthy to question why some people you know are ritually gathering around dead body parts, but unless Muslims, Confucians, Buddhists, and anyone who has been to a graveyard is a corpse-worshipper, there is no real ground to identify the honoring of these relics as a type of idolatry.
The consistent Christian teaching on relics, in the words of St. Cyril of Alexandria, is that “[w]e do not worship [...] the creature rather than to the Creator, but we venerate the relics of the martyrs in order to better adore Him whose martyrs they are.” Relics act as sacred signs of the spiritual effects of the intercession of the Church upon its holiest members, one example of an act of piety called a sacramental. While sacramental theology is a whole other can of theologically-disputed worms, the idea of relics as “sacred signs” can help a skeptic accept alien devotions to the miraculous blood of St. Januarius by noting the practice is not fundamentally different from marking a grave. According to an account of Christian Relics dating back to A.D.156, the disciples of the martyred St. Polycarp “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.”
The last part of the quote is the essence here, since it reveals that the gathering places of the early Christians were the graves and the resting places of martyrs and saints of the day. The bodies of these holy ones literally acted as the foundations of the first churches, often directly beneath the altar. Although the practice of having a relic beneath the altar continues to this day, the exponential increase in the number of churches has thus forced many relics (such as the True Cross discovered by St. Helena) to be divided into pieces to meet the demand. The relics were divided despite potential accusations of desecration, as Joan Carroll Crux writes in Relics, “in order that no one person should be privileged above any other.” Even with the smallest bit of relic, the reality in touching and seeing it can remind suffering Christians that the holiness and joy of St. Mary Magdalene, St. John the Evangelist, or Christ Himself are as real as their clothes or their homes or even their own bodies.