Anyone who thinks that the cult of relics of the saints is itself a relic of the Middle Ages should log on to eBay. On any day of the week the online shopper will find a thriving business in the sale of relics, ranging from dust from the tomb of Christ to splinters of the True Cross to bone fragments of countless saints.
Among the faithful, relics have an enormous appeal. In 1999–2000, when relics of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (1873–1897), popularly known as the Little Flower, traveled across the United States, millions turned out to touch or kiss the reliquary. The scene was repeated in 2003, when a tiny fragment of the cloak that bears the miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was carried from parish to parish throughout the country.
Believers will go out of their way to see famous relics. An online search of Catholic travel companies turns up dozens of itineraries designed specifically to visit churches that exhibit renowned relics, such as the incorrupt body of Saint Bernadette in her convent’s chapel in Nevers, France, and the basilica in Padua, Italy, where Saint Anthony lies buried.
Though many of the most famous relics like Padre Pio’s gloves and Saint Francis of Assisi’s tunic are associated with saints, relics are not limited to the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Buddhists venerate the teeth of the Buddha; Islam venerates the sword, the robe, and even strands from the beard of Mohammed. In ancient times, when a farmer or an excavation crew unearthed dinosaur bones, the Greeks and Romans took them for the remains of the Titans, or a legendary hero such as Theseus.
Even secular society prizes relics: at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, I saw crowds press around a display case that contained the gloves Mary Todd Lincoln wore to Ford’s Theatre, stained with the blood of her assassinated husband. No doubt morbid curiosity plays a part, but I believe the desire to see Mary Lincoln’s bloodstained gloves represents something deeper—the longing to have a physical connection with one of the greatest men, and one of the most tragic moments, in American history. It is that same longing to connect on a physical and not just a spiritual level that draws the faithful to the tombs of the saints, the houses where they lived, the altars before which they prayed, even the prisons where they were tortured.
In the Catholic Church relics fall into one of three categories: a first class relic is the physical remains of a saint, such as bones, hair, and blood; a second class relic is a personal possession of a saint, such as clothing, devotional objects, handwritten letters, even furniture; and a third class relic is an object, such as cloth or a holy card, that is touched to a first class relic.
Reverence for the remains and belongings of saints is rooted in Sacred Scripture. In 2 Kings 13:20–21 we read of a dead man being restored to life after his corpse touched the bones of the prophet Elisha. In Mark’s Gospel we find the story of a woman who suffered from a hemorrhage for twelve years and was cured when she touched the hem of Christ’s garment (Mark 5:25–34). And the Acts of the Apostles recounts how Christians touched handkerchiefs and other cloths to the body of Saint Paul; when these cloths were given to the sick or the possessed, “diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them” (Acts 19:11–12).
Even in times of persecution the early Christians made an earnest effort to recover the remains of the martyrs so they could be given a proper burial and their martyrdom commemorated annually with Mass celebrated at their tombs. A letter from about the year 156 AD describes the martyrdom of the elderly bishop of Smyrna, Saint Polycarp. His body had been burned, but the Christians of Smyrna searched among the ashes for any trace of the saint that had not been consumed by the flames. “We took up his bones,” the anonymous author of the letter wrote, “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.”
After Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire, great basilicas were built over the tombs of Saints Peter, Paul, and Lawrence, to name only a few. In 386 Saint Ambrose discovered the relics of the protomartyrs of Milan, Saints Gervase and Protase, and had them enshrined in his church where the faithful could venerate the relics and ask for the martyrs’ intercession. In City of God, Book 22, Saint Augustine bears witness to the many miracles that were wrought by the newly discovered relics of Saint Stephen. According to Augustine, in Tibilis, during a procession with a relic of the protomartyr, “a blind woman entreated that she might be led to the bishop who was carrying the relics. He gave her the flowers he was carrying. She took them, applied them to her eyes, and immediately saw.”
There was always the danger, of course, that some Christians in their enthusiasm might treat the saints as if they were little gods and the relics as if they were magical. Saint Jerome, in his letter to Riparius, writes of the proper veneration of saints and relics: “We do not worship, we do not adore [saints], for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the Creator, but we venerate the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore Him whose martyrs they are.”
During the Middle Ages a pilgrimage to a shrine was a popular expression of religious devotion as well as a kind of vacation or road trip. Journeys to the Holy Land, Rome, or Compostela in Spain could be dangerous (Saint Bridget of Sweden was shipwrecked on her pilgrimage to Jerusalem), but there were many shrines closer to home where one could venerate relics. Cathedrals, monasteries, and convents began to build up impressive relic collections, the better to attract throngs of pilgrims. Pilgrims were an important asset to local economies: they needed food and lodging; they would make gifts to the church; they would purchase a badge, a holy card, or some other souvenir to recall their journey. In time, aristocrats began to amass private relic collections to which they gave the public access on certain days of the year. In Wittenberg, Frederick the Wise kept his collection of thousands of relics in the Wittenberg Castle Church. It was on the door of that church in 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five Theses, an early step in the religious revolution known as the Protestant Reformation.
The Protestant reformers attacked the veneration of relics, but the Catholic bishops at the Council of Trent responded by explaining and defending the practice, saying, “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.” Nonetheless, during the Reformation period vandals smashed countless shrines, burning or otherwise destroying the relics they contained. In Lutheran Scandinavia such violence was rare; typically the relics of a saint were removed from a shrine and buried in an unmarked grave in the same church. As a result, the relics of Saint Bridget and her daughter, Saint Catherine of Sweden, as well as the relics of the martyred king Saint Eric, have survived. In England, Scotland, and Wales the reformers destroyed almost every shrine, but in recent years some Anglican bishops have attempted to restore the shrines in their cathedrals. In Winchester Cathedral, for example, a small contemporary shrine marks the spot where the shrine of Saint Swithun stood during the Middle Ages. The shrine is empty; all of the saints’ bones were destroyed during the Reformation. But at St. Alban’s Abbey a bone of the martyr lies within the new shrine, the gift of the Catholic archbishop of Cologne who had a relic of Saint Alban in one of the churches of his archdiocese.
As a rough estimate, the Catholic Church venerates about forty thousand saints. Most of these are local holy men, women, and children, virtually unknown outside the region where they lived and died. To try to catalog the location of the relics of all of these saints would require the labor of several lifetimes. And to track down the tiny fragments of saints’ bones, the snippets from saints’ clothing, would be impossible. So I have been obliged to narrow my focus. This volume contains approximately 350 entries of the Catholic world’s most important, interesting, unusual, or rare relics. Most but not all of the entries describe the relics of saints. I have included Old Testament relics such as Noah’s Ark and the Ark of the Covenant (said to be hidden in a church in Ethiopia); Holy Land relics such as the house where Jesus, Mary, and Joseph lived and the stairs from Pontius Pilate’s palace; relics of Jesus Christ, including the Manger, the True Cross, the Shroud of Turin, the Crown of Thorns, Veronica’s Veil, the Pillar of the Scourging, and the Holy Sepulcher; relics of the Virgin Mary such as her veil (at Chartres Cathedral), her portrait (Poland’s Black Madonna and Mexico’s Our Lady of Guadalupe), and her belt (at Prato Cathedral). For easy reference, the book is arranged in an A–Z format. Each entry includes the location of the relic, its history, a brief biography in the case of a saint, and the feast day.
The relics of all saints and blesseds of the United States (current at the time of this book’s publication date) are included, as well as the relics of many saints and blesseds of Canada and Latin America. I have also included entries for the two largest relic collections in America, Maria Stein in Ohio and St. Anthony’s Chapel in Pittsburgh.
Every year Maria Stein and St. Anthony’s Chapel welcome many visitors, who tend to be an amalgam of the devout and the curious. Probably very few have the level of enthusiasm for relics their ancestors knew during the Middle Ages, when monasteries, convents, cathedrals, and even nobles and kings succumbed to a kind of relic-collecting mania. The craving to possess an important, even an exceptional relic, led to all types of abuses, from theft, to relic peddling, to the manufacture of bogus relics—hence the multiple heads of Saint John the Baptist. Sadly, some churches claimed to possess relics that were spurious at best and at worst sacrilegious—a feather of the Holy Spirit, for example, or the shield of Saint Michael the Archangel. Such “relics” I have not included. In most cases the churches that possessed these items disposed of them or retired them long ago.
Nonetheless, some of the relics included in this book may raise eyebrows. It is true that not all relics that are still publicly venerated can be authenticated with 100 percent certainty. But if these relics are well known and the church that possesses them has not put them away, I felt that they ought to be included here.
Every Catholic church and chapel contains at least one relic—it is a requirement of the Church under canon law that every altar consecrated for the celebration of Mass must contain the relic of at least one saint, preferably a martyr. This requirement links even the most contemporary church with the earliest practice of the Church, when priests offered Mass using the sarcophagus of a martyr as the altar. In addition to the fragmentary relic in the altar, most churches possess other relics, which are sometimes brought out for veneration on a saint’s feast day. On a recent Good Friday it was my privilege to venerate a relic of the True Cross—one of the treasures of the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Stamford, Connecticut.
In some cases years after a saint’s death, his or her grave was opened and the body found to be in a remarkable state of preservation. Generally speaking, the term applied in such a case is “incorruptible.” However, incorruptibility is often in the eye of the beholder. Gazing upon the bodies of some of these saints, the terms “mummified,” “embalmed,” or “desiccated” may also come to mind. The body of Saint Bernadette is usually described as incorrupt, and her face is exquisitely beautiful. But the case becomes more complicated when one learns that the saint’s actual face has darkened over time, and so it has been covered with a lovely, utterly lifelike wax mask. The translation of the body of Blessed Pope John XXIII from his sarcophagus in the grottoes beneath Saint Peter’s into a side chapel of the basilica set off a debate over whether his body was supernaturally incorrupt, or whether it had been embalmed at the time of his death. The question has never been resolved definitively. It is possible that Blessed Pope John’s body is so well preserved because it had been enclosed inside three coffins, and then sealed in a stone sarcophagus.
No one should feel uneasy visiting a shrine or venerating a relic. In many respects it is similar to visiting the grave of a beloved member of the family, or cherishing a family heirloom—but on a much higher level. The shrine or relic is a physical link with someone who was so faithful to God in this life that he or she is now glorified in the Kingdom of God forever. Bringing out Grandma’s china for Christmas dinner stirs the emotions and makes us feel connected once again to someone we loved but who has since died. Relics work in the same way but more intensely, because in the case of sacred relics the connection is not only to someone we love but to someone who was genuinely holy.
Excerpted from Saints Preserved by Thomas J. Craughwell. Copyright © 2011 by Thomas J. Craughwell. Excerpted by permission of Image, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.