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Veneration of Holy Relics of the Blessed Virgin Mary

The Church has definitively declared that the Blessed Virgin Mary was assumed body and soul into the glory of heaven. The tradition in the West is that she was assumed prior to her death, and the tradition of the East is that she was assumed after her death (known as the Feast of the Dormition of Mary). At no time in history has the Church, or even critics of the Church, claimed to have the body of the Virgin Mary. However, the Church has showed great respect to objects associated with the Mother of God. After our Lord’s ascension into heaven, both scripture and history testify that Mary lived with the apostles, and would have been a well known figure in the early Church. When relics of Mary are given authenticity by the Church, the statement of validity is based clear evidence of a string of unbroken possession of that object from the early Church to the time of its documentation. This consistent string of known possession carries great historical weight.

Some relics of Mary are stones or wood from places associated with her life. When Helen, Empress of Rome, made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 326 AD, she visited the holy sites venerated consistently since gospel times. One site was the tomb of Mary, or her resting place prior to her assumption. Stones taken from this place are classified as “Ex Sepulcro” relics of Mary. In addition, relics classified as “Ex Domo” come from two known houses where the Virgin Mary lived : (1) the house believed to be the house of the holy family while in Nazareth was brought to Loreto (Italy) in 1295, and (2) the house venerated since the first century where St. John the Apostle and Mary lived in Ephesus (Turkey).  

Some relics of Mary are clothing. The Cathedral of Chartres in France has a silk veil that is believed to have been used by Mary. It has been venerated in this cathedral since 876 AD, and was venerated in Constantinople by the Byzantine Emperors for centuries prior to that. Since its veneration in France, it has survived fires and the effects of weather, often with some cleaning and repair work. Over the centuries documents of the relics of the veil of Mary (“Ex Velo”) have come from little strands of cloth removed from the veil, or from linen that was laid over it to protect or clean it, thus absorbing its sanctity. Also for centuries a belt believed to be worn by Mary, has been venerated in Homs (Syria) by the Syriac Orthodox Church. Over the years pieces of “The Holy Girdle” have been distributed to prominent churches throughout the region. Many documented relics of Mary’s belt (“Ex Cincturae”) throughout Europe trace their origin back to these relics, pieces of which were given as gifts to church leaders or obtained by the crusaders.     

In the Middle Ages, as devotion to the Virgin Mary grew throughout the Church, there was a great demand for relics. Some relics of Mary are known as “representative relics”, or objects that were touched to an authenticated relic making that object holy (or defined today as a third class relic).   Many such relics of Mary did not receive the Church’s official documentation, but were considered worthy of being placed in holy places to assist with piety, devotion, and prayer.  

There is a spectacular 18th century reliquary in Venice that contains an extremely rare first-class ex capillis relic of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Within the reliquary, which is secured by the personal seal of Pope Pius VI (p. 1775-1799), is a bundle of the Blessed Virgin's own hair. Since the Blessed Virgin Mary was taken into heaven both body and soul after her death, it is not possible that any other physical relics of her could exist. According to the Tradition, the Most Precious Relic of her hair had been preserved and venerated since the time of her Assumption in the Holy House of Nazareth. Recent archeological excavations have proven that the Holy House was treated as a Christian sanctuary as early as the 1st century AD. The relic of the Blessed Virgin's hair is believed to have been brought from the Holy Land by the Crusaders and is venerated in Venice in the Basilica of Saint Mark.