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A Guide to the Roman Catholic Cult of Relics

By + Vladimir Saemmler-Hindrichs

Purcellville 12 October 2012

The cult of relics has been an instrumental part of the Christian Faith since the days of the early Church. The Eucharist is celebrated on an altar that is dedicated to and blessed with the presence of the saints. In the Roman Catholic tradition, this takes the form of relics embedded in the altar itself, and formerly in an altar stone, which had a specific relic or relics sealed within it. In Eastern Orthodoxy, the altar frequently has relics embedded, but the usual usage is in the form of an antimension, which also has a sealed relic embedded in it.

Relics have played a central role in Christianity since the time that the Roman congregation met and celebrated in the catacombs of subterranean Rome. There, surrounded by the mortal remains of the saints, the early Christians communed, joined in this act by ranks of saints.

There is widespread interest in Roman Catholic relics, caused in part by the Roman Catholic Church’s own stance on validation of the cultus and establishment of the authenticity of any relic and miracle. Since the Council of Trent [Concilium Tridentinum, 1545 – 1563], any relic authorized by the Roman Catholic Church has to bear the seal of the responsible Curia official, a Postulator General, or a Local Ordinary. Those destined for public veneration are frequently accompanied by a document, referred to as the relic’s authentics, which generally describes and defines the relic in question and defines and reproduces th same seal found on the relic itself. In contrast, most Orthodox relics are documented by tradition only. It is a sad truth that more Constantinopolitan documentation on some of the major relics of Christendom survives in letter form in the Vatican archives than in any of the Local Orthodox Churches. This is more than in part due to the fact that the Vatican has placed tremendous value of the imp0rtance of historical documentation for well over a millennium.

Relics come in a variety of different forms. Due to the wide proliferation of the Christian Faith throughout the world, there are very few major relics available, and the majority of relics are small particles, sealed in a container called a theca, and bearing an authorizing seal. Another important category is formed by so-called altar relics, which are frequently in small paper wrappers, often containing a printed or manuscript authentication and bearing a seal. A variety of other containers, including ampules, bottles, cases, and boxes, are also encountered. These also bear the wax seals of the cognizant authority and are also encountered with separate documents.

The gold standard for relics would be a sealed container, bearing an identified episcopal seal establishing authenticity, accompanied by a legible document signed by the same authority who applied the original seal to the container, with no damages to either the container or the seal. Such documentation does not exist for any relic before the Council of Trent, and is quite rare for relics before the mid-nineteenth century.

The rarest available relics of the Christian Faith are, in order of rarity:

The Burial Shroud of Our Lord, also known as the Shroud of Turin. Almost all known examples have been personal gifts of the cognizant Pope.

The Hair of the Virgin. The only true first-class relic of the Virgin Mary has at least two divergent histories. Preserved in a casket in Nazareth and later in Messina, Italy, the hair was ostensibly cut shortly before the bodily Assumption by the Apostles themselves and preserved. Another history relates the preservation of the hair to a Jewish religious rite requiring the cutting of hair as part of a puberty ritual.

The True Cross. Although the True Cross is not as rare as Shroud or the Hair, it remains one of the most desirable relics of our Lord. Because of its identification with the fundamental act defining Christianity, it remains desirable even to those who are squeamish about physical (body part) relics. Cross relics have yet another variant which needs to be observed. In part because of the tendency to clip parts of the Cross relic, many of them are permanently sealed in their metal-backed thecas, thus making it impossible to validate the wax seal.

Saints Peter and Paul. These relics come in a variety of formats, including packaged together, which is befitting of the first princes of the Church.

A century ago, the Catholic Encyclopedia defined relics and the cult of relics in the following fashion. With minor editorial changes, this summary remains the best single expose of the Roman Catholic cult of relics.

The word ‘relics’ comes from the Latin reliquiae (the counterpart of the Greek leipsana) which already before the propagation of Christianity was used in its modern sense, viz., of some object, notably part of the body or clothes, remaining as a memorial of a departed saint. The veneration of relics, in fact, is to some extent a primitive instinct, and it is associated with many other religious systems besides that of Christianity. At Athens the supposed remains of Oedipus and Theseus enjoyed an honor which it is very difficult to distinguish from a religious cult (see for all this Pfister, Reliquienkult in Altertum, I, 1909), while Plutarch gives an account of the translation of the bodies of Demetrius (Demetr. iii) and Phocion (Phoc. xxxvii) which in many details anticipates the Christian practice of the Middle Ages. The bones or ashes of Aesculapius at Epidaurus, of Perdiccas I at Macedon, and even—if we may trust the statement of the Chronicon Paschale (Dindorf, p. 67)—of the Persian Zoroaster (Zarathustra), were treated with the deepest veneration. As for the Far East, the famous story of the distribution of the relics of Buddha, an incident which is believed to have taken place immediately after his death, seems to have found remarkable confirmation in certain modern archaeological discoveries. (See Journ. of R. Asiatic Society, 1909, pp. 1056 sqq.). In any case, the extreme development of relic-worship amongst the Buddhists of every sect is a fact beyond dispute.

Doctrine regarding relics

The teaching of the Catholic Church with regard to the veneration of relics is summed up in a decree of the Council of Trent (Sess. XXV), which enjoins on bishops and other pastors to instruct their flocks that “the holy bodies of holy martyrs and of others now living with Christ—which bodies were the living members of Christ and ‘the temple of the Holy Ghost’ (1 Corinthians 6:19) and which are by Him to be raised to eternal life and to be glorified are to be venerated by the faithful, for through these [bodies] many benefits are bestowed by God on men, so that they who affirm that veneration and honor are not due to the relics of the saints, or that these and other sacred monuments are uselessly honored by the faithful, and that the places dedicated to the memories of the saints are in vain visited with the view of obtaining their aid, are wholly to be condemned, as the Church has already long since condemned and also now condemns them.” Further, the council insists that ‘in the invocation of saints the veneration of relics and the sacred use of images, every superstition shall be removed and all filthy lucre abolished.’ Again, “the visitation of relics must not be by any perverted into revellings and drunkenness.” To secure a proper check upon abuses of this kind, “no new miracles are to be acknowledged or new relics recognized unless the bishop of the diocese has taken cognizance and approved thereof.” Moreover, the bishop, in all these matters, is directed to obtain accurate information to take council with theologians and pious men, and in cases of doubt or exceptional difficulty to submit the matter to the sentence of the metropolitan and other bishops of the province, “yet so that nothing new, or that previously has not been usual in the Church, shall be resolved on, without having first consulted the Holy See.”

The justification of Catholic practice, which is indirectly suggested here by the reference to the bodies of the saints as formerly temples of the Holy Ghost and as destined hereafter to be eternally glorified, is further developed in the authoritative “Roman Catechism” drawn up at the instance of the same council. Recalling the marvels witnessed at the tombs of the martyrs, where “the blind and cripples are restored to health, the dead recalled to life, and *devils?* expelled from the bodies of men” the Catechism points out that these are facts which “Saint Ambrose and Saint Augustine, most unexceptionable witnesses, declare in their writings that they have not merely heard and read about, as many did but have seen with their own eyes”, (Ambrose, Epist. xxii, nn. 2 and 17, Augustine, Serm. cclxxxvi, c.v.; City of God XXII, “Confess.”, ix). And from thence, turning to Scriptural analogies, the compilers further argue: “If the clothes, the kerchiefs (Acts 19:12), if the shadow of the saints (Acts 5:15), before they departed from this life, banished diseases and restored strength, who will have the hardihood to deny that God wonderfully works the same by the sacred ashes, the bones, and other relics of the saints? This is the lesson we have to learn from that dead body which, having been accidentally let down into the sepulcher of Eliseus, “when it had touched the bones of the Prophet, instantly came to life” (2 Kings 13:21, and cf. Sirach 48:14). We may add that this miracle as well as the veneration shown to the bones of Moses (See Exodus 13:19 and Joshua 24:32) only gain additional force from their apparent contradiction to the ceremonial laws against defilement, of which we read in Numbers 19:11-22. The influence of this Jewish shrinking from contact with the dead so far lingered on that it was found necessary in the “Apostolical Constitutions” (vi, 30) to issue a strong warning against it and to argue in favor of the Christian cult of relics.

According to the more common opinion of theologians, relics are to be honored; Saint Thomas, in Summa III:25:6, does not seem to consider even the word adorare inappropriate— cultu duliae relativae, that is to say with a veneration which is not that of latria (divine worship) and which though directed primarily to the material objects of the cult—i.e., the bones, ashes, garments, etc.—does not rest in them, but looks beyond to the saints they commemorate as to its formal term. Hauck, Kattenbusch, and other non-Catholic writers have striven to show that the utterances of the Council of Trent are in contradiction to what they admit to being the “very cautious” language of the medieval scholastics, and notably Saint Thomas. The latter urges that those who have an affection to any person hold in honor all that was intimately connected with him. Hence, while we love and venerate the saints who were so dear to God, we also venerate all that belonged to them, and particularly their bodies, which were once the temples of the Holy Spirit, and which are someday to be conformed to the glorious body of Jesus Christ. “whence also”, adds Saint Thomas, “God fittingly does honor to such relics by performing miracles in their presence [in earum praesentia].” It will be seen that this closely accords with the terms used by the Council of Trent and that the difference consists only in this, that the Council says per quae—“through which many benefits are bestowed on mankind”—while Saint Thomas speaks of miracles worked “in their presence”. But it is quite unnecessary to attach to the words per quae the idea of physical causality. We have no reason to suppose that the council meant more than that the relics of the saints were the occasion of God’s working miracles. When we read in the Acts of the Apostles, xix, 11, 12, “And God wrought by the hand of Paul more than common miracles. So that even there were brought from his body to the sick, handkerchiefs and aprons, and the diseases departed from them, and the wicked spirits went out from them” there can be no inexactitude in saying that these also were the things by which (per quae) God wrought the cure. There is nothing, therefore, in Catholic teaching to justify the statement that the Church encourages belief in a magical virtue, or physical curative efficacy residing in the relic itself. It may be admitted that Saint Cyril of Jerusalem (A.D. 347), and a few other patristic and medieval writers, apparently speak of some power inherent in the relic. For example, Saint Cyril, after referring to the miracle wrought by the body of Eliseus, declares that the restoration to life of the corpse with which it was in contact took place: “to show that even though the soul is not present a virtue resides in the body of the saints, because of the righteous soul which has for so many years tenanted it and used it as its minister”. And he adds, “Let us not be foolishly incredulous as though the thing had not happened, for if handkerchiefs and aprons which are from without, touching the body of the diseased, have raised up the sick, how much more should the body itself of the Prophet raise the dead?” (Cat., xviii, 16.) But this seems rather to belong to the personal view or manner of speech of Saint Cyril. He regards the chrism after its consecration “as no longer simple ointment but the gift of Christ and by the presence of His Godhead it causes in us the Holy Ghost” (Cat., xxi, 3); and, what is more striking, he also declares that the meats consecrated to idols, “though in their own nature plain and simple become profane by the invocation of the evil spirit” (Cat., xix, 7)—all of which must leave us very doubtful as to his real belief in any physical virtue inherent in relics. Be this as it may, it is certain that the Church, with regard to the veneration of relics, has defined nothing, more than what was stated above. Neither has the Church ever pronounced that any particular relic, not even that commonly venerated as the wood of the Cross, as authentic; but she approves of honor being paid to those relics which with reasonable probability are believed to be genuine and which are invested with due ecclesiastical sanctions.

Early History

Few points of faith can be more satisfactorily traced back to the earliest ages of Christianity than the veneration of relics. The classical instance is to be found in the letter written by the inhabitants of Smyrna, about 156, describing the death of Saint Polycarp. After he had been burnt at the stake, we are told that his faithful disciples wished to carry off his remains, but the Jews urged the Roman officer to refuse his consent for fear that the Christians “would only abandon the Crucified One and begin to worship this man”. Eventually, however, as the Smyrnaeans say, “we 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 birthday of his martyrdom.” This is the keynote which is echoed in a multitude of similar passages found a little later in the patristic writers of both East and West. Harnack’s tone in referring to this development is that of an unwilling witness overwhelmed by evidence which it is useless to resist. “Most offensive”, he writes, “was the worship of relics. It flourished to its greatest extent as early as the fourth century and no Church doctor of repute restricted it. All of them rather, even the Cappadocians, countenanced it. The numerous miracles which were wrought by bones and relics seemed to confirm their worship. The Church, therefore, would not give up the practice, although a violent attack was made upon it by a few cultured heathens and besides by the Manichæans” (Harnack, Hist. of Dog., tr., IV, 313). From the Catholic standpoint there was no extravagance or abuse in this cult as it was recommended and indeed taken for granted, by writers like Saint Augustine, Saint Ambrose, Saint Jerome, Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Gregory Nazianzen, and by all the other great doctors without exception. To give detailed references besides those already cited from the Roman Catechism would be superfluous. Suffice it to point out that the inferior and relative nature of the honor due to relics was always kept in view. Thus Saint Jerome says (Ad Riparium, I, P.L., XXII, 907): “We do not worship, we do not adore [non colimus, non adoramus], for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the Creator, but we venerate [honoramus] the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore Him whose martyrs they are.” And Saint Cyril of Alexandria writes (Adv. Julian., vi, P.G. LXXVI, 812): “We by no means consider the holy martyrs to be gods, nor are we wont to bow down before them adoringly, but only relatively and reverentially [ou latreutikos alla schetikos kai timetikos].” Perhaps no single writing supplies a more striking illustration of the importance attached to the veneration of relics in the Christian practice of the fourth century than the panegyric of the martyr Saint Theodore by Saint Gregory of Nyssa (P.G., XLVI, 735-48). Contrasting the horror produced by an ordinary corpse with the veneration paid to the body of a saint the preacher expatiates upon the adornment lavished upon the building which had been erected over the martyr's resting place, and he describes how the worshiper is led to approach the tomb “believing that to touch it is itself sanctification and a blessing and if it is permitted to carry off any of the dust which has settled upon the martyr's resting place, the dust is accounted as a great gift and the mold as a precious treasure. And as for touching the relics themselves, if that should ever be our happiness, only those who have experienced it and who have had their wish gratified can know how much this is desirable and how worthy a recompense it is of aspiring prayer” (col. 740).

This passage, like many others that might be quoted, dwells rather upon the sanctity of the martyr's resting place and upon that of his mortal remains collected as a whole and honorably entombed. Neither is it quite easy to determine the period at which the practice of venerating minute fragments of bone or cloth, small parcels of dust, etc., first became common. We can only say that it was widespread early in the fourth century and that dated inscriptions upon blocks of stone, which were probably altar slabs, afford evidence upon the point which is quite conclusive. One such, found of late years in Northern Africa and now preserved in the Christian Museum of the Louvre, bears a list of the relics probably once cemented into a shallow circular cavity excavated in its surface. Omitting one or two words not adequately explained, the inscription runs: “A holy memorial [memoria sancta] of the wood of the Cross, of the land of Promise where Christ was born, the Apostles Peter and Paul, the names of the martyrs Datian, Donatian, Cyprian, Nemesianus, Citinus, and Victoria. In the year of the Province 320 [i.e. A.D. 359] Benenatus and Pequaria set this up” (Corp. Inscr. Lat., VIII, n. 20600).

We learn from Saint Cyril of Jerusalem (before 350) that the wood of the Cross, discovered c. 318, was already distributed throughout the world; and Saint Gregory of Nyssa in his sermons on the forty martyrs, after describing how their bodies were burned by command of the persecutors, explains that “their ashes and all that the fire had spared have been so distributed throughout the world that almost every province has had its share of the blessing. I also myself have a portion of this holy gift and I have laid the bodies of my parents beside the ashes of these warriors, that in the hour of the resurrection they may be awakened together with these highly privileged comrades” (P.G., XLVI, 764). We have here also a hint of the explanation of the widespread practice of seeking burial near the tombs of the martyrs. It seems to have been felt that when the souls of the blessed martyrs on the day of general were once more united to their bodies, they would be accompanied in their passage to heaven by those who lay around them and that these last might on their account find more ready acceptance with God.

We may note also that, while this and other passages suggest that no great repugnance was felt in the East to the division and dismemberment of the bodies of the saints, in the West, on the other hand, particularly at Rome, the greatest respect was shown to the holy dead. The mere unwrapping or touching of the body of a martyr was considered to be a terribly perilous enterprise, which could only be set about by the holiest of ecclesiastics, and that after prayer and fasting. This belief lasted until the late Middle Ages and is illustrated, for example, in the life of Saint Hugh of Lincoln, who excited the surprise of his episcopal contemporaries by his audacity in examining and translating relics which his colleagues dared not disturb. In the Theodosian Code the translation, division, or dismemberment of the remains of martyrs was expressly forbidden (“Nemo martyrem distrahat”, Cod. Theod., IX, xvii, 7); and somewhat later Gregory the Great seems in very emphatic terms to attest the continuance of the same tradition. He professed himself skeptical regarding the alleged “customs of the Greeks” of readily transferring the bodies of martyrs from place to place, declaring that throughout the West any interference with these honored remains was looked upon as a sacrilegious act and that numerous prodigies had struck terror into the hearts of even well-meaning men who had attempted anything of the sort. Hence, though it was Empress Constantina herself who had asked him for the head or some portion of the body of Saint Paul, he treated the request as an impossible one, explaining that, to obtain the supply of relics needful in the consecration of churches, it was customary to lower into the Confession of the Apostles as far as the second “cataract”—so we learn from a letter to Pope Hermisdas in 519 (Thiel, Epist. gen., I, 873) ] a box containing portions of silk or cloth, known as brandea, and this brandea, after lying for a time in contact with the remains of the holy Apostles, were henceforth treated as relics. Gregory further offers to send Constantina some filings from Saint Peter’s chains, a form of the present of which we find frequent mention in his correspondence (Saint Gregory, Epist., Mon. Germ. Hist., I, 264 -66). It is certain that long before this time an extended conception of the nature of a relic, such as this important letter reveals, had gradually grown up. Already when Eusebius wrote ©. 325) such objects as the hair of Saint James or the oil multiplied by Bishop Narcissus (Church History VII.39, and Church History VI.9) were clearly venerated as relics, and Saint Augustine, in his City of God (XXII.8), gives numerous instances of miracles wrought by soil from the Holy Land flowers which had touched a reliquary or had been laid upon a particular altar, oil from the lamps of the church of a martyr, or by other things not less remotely connected with the saints themselves. Further. it is noteworthy that the Roman prejudice against translating and dividing seems only to have applied to the actual bodies of the martyrs reposing in their tombs. It is Saint Gregory himself who enriches a little cross, destined to hang round the neck as an encolpion, with filings both from Saint Peter’s chains and from the gridiron of Saint Laurence (Epist., Mon. Germ. Hist., I, 192). Before the year 350, Saint Cyril of Jerusalem three times over informs us that the fragments of the wood of the Cross found by Saint Helen had been distributed piecemeal and had filled the whole world (Cat., iv, 10; x, 19; xiii, 4). This implies that Western pilgrims felt no more impropriety in receiving than the Eastern bishops in giving.

During the Merovingian and Carolingian period, the cultus of relics increased rather than diminished. Gregory of Tours abounds in stories of the marvels wrought by them, as well as of the practices used in their honor, some of which have been thought to be analogous to those of the pagan “incubations” (De Glor. Conf., xx); neither does he omit to mention the frauds occasionally perpetrated by scoundrels through motives of greed. Very significant, as Hauck (Kirchengesch. Deutschl., I 185) has noticed is the prologue to the text of the Salic Laws, probably written, by a contemporary of Gregory of Tours in the sixth century. “That nation”, it says, “which has undoubtedly in battle shaken off the hard yoke of the Romans, now that it has been illuminated through Baptism, has adorned the bodies of the holy martyrs with gold and precious stones, those same bodies which the Romans burnt with fire, and pierced with the sword, or threw to wild beasts to be torn to pieces.” In England, we find from the first a strong tradition in the same sense derived from Saint Gregory himself. Bede records (Hist. Eccl., I, xxix) how the pope “forwarded to Augustine all the things needful for the worship and service of the church, namely, sacred vessels, altar linen, church ornaments, priestly and clerical vestments, relics of the holy Apostles and martyrs and also many books”. The Penitential ascribed to Saint Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury, which certainly was known in England at an early date, declares that “the relics of the saints are to be venerated”, and it adds, seemingly in connection with the same idea, that “If possible a candle is to burn there every night” (Haddan and Stubbs, Councils, III, 191). When we remember the candles which King Alfred constantly kept burning before his relics, the authenticity of this clause in Theodore's Penitential seems the more probable. Again the relics of English saints, for example, those of Saint Cuthbert and Saint Oswald, soon became famous, while in the case of the latter we hear of them all over the continent. Mr. Plummer (Bede, II, 159-61) has made a shortlist of them and shows that they must have been transported into the remotest part of Germany. After the Second Council of Nicaea, in 787, had insisted with special urgency that relics were to be used in the consecration of churches and that the omission was to be supplied if any church had been consecrated without them the English Council of Celchyth (probably Chelsea) commanded that relics were to be used and in default of them the Blessed Eucharist. But the developments of the veneration of relics in the Middle Ages were far too vast to be pursued further. Not a few of the most famous of the early medieval inscriptions are connected with the same matter. It must suffice to mention the famous Clematius inscription at Cologne, recording the translation of the remains of the so-called Eleven thousand Virgins (see Krause, Inscrip d. Rheinlande, no. 294, and, for a discussion of the legend, the admirable essay on the subject by Cardinal Wiseman.


Naturally, it was impossible for popular enthusiasm to be roused to so high a pitch in a matter which easily lent itself to error, fraud, and greed of gain, without at least the occasional occurrence of many grave cases of abuse. As early as the end of the fourth century, Saint Augustine denouncing certain impostors wandering about in the habit of monks, describes them as making a profit by the sale of spurious relics (De op. monach., xxviii and cf. Isidore, De. div. off., ii, 16). In the Theodosian Code the sale of relics is forbidden (Nemo martyrem mercetur, VII, ix, 17), but numerous stories, of which it would be easy to collect a long series, beginning with the writings of Saint Gregory the Great and Saint Gregory of Tours, prove to us that many unprincipled persons found a means of enriching themselves by a sort of trade in these objects of devotion, the majority of which no doubt were fraudulent. At the beginning of the ninth century, as M. Jean Guiraud had shown (Mélanges G. B. de Rossi, 73-95), the exportation of the bodies of martyrs from Rome had assumed the dimensions of regular commerce, and a certain deacon, Deusdona, acquired unenviable notoriety in these transactions (see Mon. Germ. Hist.: Script., XV, passim). What was perhaps in the long run hardly less disastrous than fraud or avarice was the keen rivalry between religious centers, and the eager credulity fostered by the desire to be known as the possessors of some unusually startling relic. We learn from Cassian, in the fifth century, that there were monks who seized upon certain martyrs’ bodies by force of arms, defying the authority of the bishops, and this was a story in which we find many times repeated in the Western chronicles of a later date.

In such an atmosphere of lawlessness, doubtful relics came to abound. There was always a disposition to regard any human remains accidentally discovered near a church or in the catacombs as the body of a martyr. Hence, though men like Saint Athanasius and Saint Martin of Tours set a good example of caution in such cases, it is to be feared that in the majority of instances only a very narrow interval of time intervened between the suggestion that a particular object might be, or ought to be, an important relic, and the conviction that tradition attested it actually to be such. There is no reason in most cases for supposing the existence of deliberate fraud. The persuasion that a benevolent Providence was likely to send the most precious pignora sanctorum to deserving clients, the practice already noticed of attributing the same sanctity to objects which had touched the shrine as attached to the contents of the shrine itself, the custom of making facsimiles and imitations, a custom which persists to our own day in the replicas of the Vatican statue of St. Peter or of the Grotto of Lourdes, all these are causes adequate to account for the multitude of unquestionably spurious relics with which the treasuries of great medieval churches were crowded. In the case of the Nails with which Jesus Christ was crucified, we can point to definite instances in which that which was at first venerated as having touched the original came later to be honored as the original itself. Join to this the large license given to the occasional unscrupulous rogue in an age not only utterly uncritical but often curiously morbid in its realism, and it becomes easy to understand the multiplicity and extravagance of the entries in the relic inventories of Rome and other countries.

On the other hand, it must not be supposed that nothing was done by ecclesiastical authority to secure the faithful against deception. Such tests were applied as the historical and antiquarian science of that day was capable of devising. Very often, however, this test took the form of an appeal to some miraculous sanction, as in the well-known story repeated by Saint Ambrose, according to which, when doubt arose which of the three crosses discovered by Saint Helena was that of Christ, the healing of a sick man by one of them dispelled all further hesitation. Similarly, Egbert, Bishop of Trier, in 979, doubting as to the authenticity of what purported to be the body of Saint Celsus, “lest any suspicion of the sanctity of the holy relics should arise, during Mass after the offertory had been sung, threw a joint of the finger of Saint Celsus wrapped in a cloth into a thurible full of burning coals, which remained unhurt and untouched by the fire the whole time of the Canon” (Mabillon Acta SS. Ord. Ben., III, 658).

The decrees of synods upon this subject are generally practical and sensible, as when, for example, Bishop Quivil of Exeter, in 1287 after recalling the prohibition of the General Council of Lyons against venerating recently found relics unless they were first of all approved by the Roman Pontiff, adds: “We command the above prohibition to be carefully observed by all and decree that no person shall expose relics for sale, and that neither stones, nor fountains, trees, wood, or garments shall in any way be venerated on account of dreams or on fictitious grounds.” So, again, the whole procedure before Clement VII (the antipope) in 1359, recently brought to light by Canon Chevalier, in connection with the ostensible Holy Shroud of Lirey, proves that some check at least was exercised upon the excesses of the unscrupulous or the mercenary.

Nevertheless, it remains true that many of the more ancient relics duly exhibited for veneration in the great sanctuaries of Christendom or even at Rome itself must now be pronounced to be either certainty spurious or open to grave suspicion. To take one example of the latter class, the boards of the Crib (Praesaepe)— a name which for much more than a thousand years has been associated, as now, with the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore—can only be considered to be of doubtful. In his monograph “Le memorie Liberiane dell’ Infanzia di N. S. Gesù Cristo” (Rome, 1894), Mgr. Cozza Luzi frankly avows that all positive evidence for the authenticity of the relics of the Crib etc. is wanting before the eleventh century. Strangely enough, an inscription in Greek uncials of the eighth century is found on one of the boards, the inscription having nothing to do with the Crib but being apparently concerned with some commercial transaction. It is hard to explain its presence on the supposition that the relic is authentic. Similar difficulties might be urged against the supposed “column of the flagellation” venerated at Rome in the Church of Santa Prassede and against many other famous relics.

Still, it would be presumptuous in such cases to blame the action of ecclesiastical authority in permitting the continuance of a cult which extends back into remote antiquity. On the one hand, no one is constrained to pay homage to the relic, and supposing it to be in fact spurious, no dishonor is done to God by the continuance of an error which has been handed down in perfect good faith for many centuries. On the other hand, the practical difficulty of pronouncing a final verdict upon the authenticity of these and similar relics must be patent to all. Each investigation would be an affair of much time and expense, while new discoveries might at any moment reverse the conclusions arrived at. Further, devotions of ancient date deeply rooted in the heart of the peasantry cannot be swept away without some measure of scandal and popular disturbance. To create this sensation seems unwise unless the proof of spuriousness is so overwhelming as to amount to certainty. Hence there is justification for the practice of the Holy See in allowing the cult of certain doubtful ancient relics to continue. Meanwhile, much has been done by quietly allowing many items in some of the most famous collections of relics to drop out of sight or by gradually omitting much of the solemnity which formerly surrounded the exposition of these doubtful treasures. Many of the inventories of the great collections of Rome, or of Aachen, Cologne, Naples, Salzburg, Antwerp, Constantinople, of the Sainte Chapelle at Paris, etc., have been published. For illustration's sake reference may be made to the Count de Riant's work “Exuviae Constantinopolitanae” or to the many documents printed by Mgr. Barbier de Monault regarding Rome, particularly in vol. VII of his “Oeuvres complètes”. In most of these ancient inventories, the extravagance and utter improbability of many of the entries can not escape the most uncritical. Moreover, though some sort of verification seems often to be traceable even in Merovingian times, still the so-called authentications which have been printed of this early date (seventh century) are of a most primitive kind. They consist in fact of mere labels, strips of parchment with just the name of the relic to which each strip was attached, barbarously written in Latin. For example “Hic sunt reliquas sancti Victuriepiscopi, Festivitate Kalendis Septembris”, “Hic sunt patrocina sancti Petri et Paullo Roma civio”, etc.

It would probably be true to say that in no part of the world was the veneration of relics carried to greater lengths with no doubt proportionate danger of abuse, than among Celtic peoples. The honor paid to the handbells of such saints as Saint Patrick, Saint Senan, and Saint Mura, the strange adventures of sacred remains carried about with them in their wanderings by the Armorican people under the stress of invasion by Teutons and Northmen, the prominence given to the taking of oaths upon relics in the various Welsh codes founded upon the laws of Howell the Good, the expedients used for gaining possession of these treasures, and the numerous accounts of translations and miracles, all help to illustrate the importance of this aspect of the ecclesiastical life of the Celtic races.


At the same time, the solemnity attached to translations was by no means a peculiarity of the Celts. The story of the translation of Saint Cuthbert’s remains is almost as marvelous as any in Celtic hagiography. The forms observed of all-night vigils, and the carrying of the precious remains in “feretories” of gold or silver, overshadowed with silken canopies and surrounded with lights and incense, extended to every part of Christendom during the Middle Ages. Indeed this kind of solemn translation (elevatio corporis) was treated as the outward recognition of heroic sanctity, the equivalent of canonization, in the period before the Holy See reserved to itself the passing of final judgment upon the merits of deceased servants of God, and on the other hand, in the earlier forms of canonization Bulls it was customary to add a clause directing that the remains of those whose sanctity was thus proclaimed by the head of the Church should be “elevated”, or translated, to some shrine above ground where fitting honor could be paid them.

This was not always carried at once. Thus Saint Hugh of Lincoln, who died in 1200, was canonized in 1220, but it was not until 1280 that his remains were translated to the beautiful “Angel Choir” which had been constructed expressly to receive them. This translation is noteworthy not only because King Edward I himself helped to carry the bier, but because it provides a typical example of the separation of the head and body of the saint which was a peculiar feature of so many English translations. The earliest example of this separation was probably that of Saint Edwin, king and martyr; but we have also the cases of Saint Oswald, Saint Chad, Saint Richard of Chichester (translated in 1276), and Saint William of York (translated 1284). It is probable that the ceremonial observed in these solemn translations closely imitated that used in the enshrining of the relics in these pulcrum of the altar at the consecration of a church while this in turn, as Mgr Duchesne has shown, is nothing but the development of the primitive burial service the martyr or saint being laid to rest in the church dedicated to his honor. But the carrying of relics is not peculiar to the procession which takes place at the dedications of a church. Their presence is recognized as a fitting adjunct to the solemnities of almost every kind of precession, except perhaps those of the Blessed Sacrament, and in medieval times no exception was made even for these latter.

Feast of relics

It has long been customary especially in churches which possessed large collections of relics, to keep one general feast in commemoration of all the saints whose memorials are there preserved. An Office and Mass for this purpose will be found in the Roman Missal and Breviary, and though they occur only in the supplement Pro aliquibus locis and are not obligatory upon the Church at large, still this celebration is now kept almost universally. The office is generally assigned to the fourth Sunday in October. In England before the Reformation, as we may learn from a rubric in the Sarum Breviary, the Festum Reliquiarum was celebrated on the Sunday after the feast of the Translation of Saint Thomas of Canterbury (7 July), and it was to be kept as a greater double “wherever relics are preserved or where the bodies of dead persons are buried, for although Holy Church and her ministers observe no solemnities in their honor, the glory they enjoy with God is known to Him alone.”

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