September 24, 2009
In 1967 Pope Paul VI returned the skull of St. Andrew the Apostle to the saint’s shrine in Patras. This relic had been taken to Rome to keep it safe after the fall of Constantinople and the invasion of the Turks. On Nov 27, 2004, Pope John Paul II handed over the relics of the Doctors of the Church St. Gregory Nazianzen and St. John Chrysostom to the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople. The remains of St. Gregory Nazianzen had been taken to Rome in the 8th century to safeguard them from a wave of attacks on iconography in Constantinople. Those of St. John Chrysostom had been carried to Rome by crusaders after the sacking of Constantinople in 1204. The return of these relics symbolically affirmed the unity already existing between Constantinople and Rome, between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church.
Respect for the relics of the saints is one of the unbroken traditions that Catholics share with the Orthodox. For the sixteen centuries prior to the Protestant Reformation, the Church gave special honor to the relics of the saints. Today both Catholics and Orthodox venerate the memory of the saints, seek their intercession of the saints and honor their relics.
No doubt the Reformers in the sixteenth century had to deal with abuses obscuring authentic Church teaching about prayer to the saints and respect for their relics. Already by the beginning of the ninth century, the bodies of martyrs were being exported from Rome. The practice became something of a commerce that succumbed to avarice and fraud. To satisfy popular demand, unusual relics began to appear, including multiple heads of St. John the Baptist.
In Luther’s day, the castle church of Wittenberg boasted of many relics. On certain days, pilgrims would come to the church to ask for the intercession of the saints whose relics were placed on display. Great numbers would crowd the church as the feast of All Saints approached. No doubt, Luther made use of this ready audience when he posted his ninety-five propositions on the church’s door in 1517.
Luther was not favorable to the place of the saints in the life of the faithful. He spoke against the very idea of the intercession of the saints. He contended that such devotion relied on works and not faith for salvation. Likewise, John Calvin was opposed to the long-standing veneration given to the bodies of the saints. He composed a systematic critique of the cult of relics (
Traité des reliques, 1547).
During the Wars of Religion in France between the Catholics and the Protestant Huguenots (1562–98), theological opposition often turned to violent iconoclasm on the part of Huguenots. Statues and relics were destroyed. Many French churches still bear the scars of these attacks. Eventually, the drive to purge the Church of devotion to the saints and to relics spilled over into England.
Canterbury Tales witnesses to the fact that the shrine of St. Thomas Beckett at Canterbury had become the most famous shrine in England and was renown through all of Europe. Because of the great influx of pilgrims, the shrine had accumulated vast wealth. In 1538, Henry VIII destroyed the shrine and, according to many, the remains of St. Thomas Beckett. The king appropriated all the wealth to his own use. Henry VIII even established a Commission for the Destruction of Shrines. Surely there was much more prompting the king’s action than just the desire to end the use of relics.
Theologians and pastors within the Catholic tradition have always recognized that misguided piety could lead to abuses in the use of relics. One of the most famous diatribes against the false use of relics came not from one the Reformers but from the Benedictine historian and theologian Guibert of Nogent (1055–1124). In his work De pignoribus sanctorum (On Saints and their Relics), he called for a close oversight of the use of relics. Nonetheless, he accepted their place within popular piety.
In our modern scientific age, some find offense in the Church’s continued respect for the bodies of the saints and their relics. Yet, our society does respect the remains of Lt. Col. George Custer and the other soldiers killed at Little Bighorn in 1876. And there are many people who hold on to “secular relics” without any difficulty. Sport fans collect everything from autographed sports cards to mounted jerseys. One baseball autographed by a Yankee player sells for $649.99. An autograph photo of James Dean sells for $599.99. The famous 1974 stage-worn peacock jumpsuit of Elvis Presley goes for $300,000. Sports fans along with entertainment aficionados treasure items closely connected with the stars.
Holding onto memorabilia of the famous is not limited just to movie fans and sports enthusiasts. In the Privy Chamber of the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul, Muslims display their treasures that include the sword and standard of Muhammad, a hair from his beard, and the staff of Moses. There is something within the human spirit that longs to be in contact with those we love and admire.
Saints’ relics, however, are treasured in a decidedly more solemn tradition than are the memorabilia of the rich and famous.
To be continued