October 15, 2009
Today, many people-- some in wonder and others in devotion-- pass before the uncorrupted bodies of such saints as St. Clare of Assisi (+1253), St. Catherine of Bologna (+1463), St. Bernadette of Lourdes (+1879) and, most recently, St. Padre Pio of Pietrelcina (+1968). Faithful to a tradition going back to the beginnings of Christianity, the Church has continued to show great respect for the remains of her saints. In some instances, their bodies defy the natural process of corruption.
As St. Augustine teaches, “if the dress of a father, or his ring, or anything he wore, be precious to his children, in proportion to the love they bore him, with how much more reason ought we to care for the bodies of those we love, which they wore far more closely and intimately than any clothing?”(
City of God , I, 13). For this reason among others, both the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church share the same reverence for the bodies of the saints.
Long before the objections raised at the time of the 16
th century Protestant reformation, St. Jerome, writing in the 4
th century, gave an eloquent explanation of the proper attitude to relics. He said, “We do not worship, we do not adore [relics], 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” (
Ad Riparium, XXII, 907).
Preaching a panegyric of the feast of the 4th century martyr St. Theodore of Amasea, St. Gregory of Nyssa explained the Christian tradition of building a church over the martyr’s tomb and the custom of faithful coming to the tomb to pray. He said, “Believing that to touch [the tomb] is itself a sanctification and a blessing and, if it be 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 mould 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” (P.G., XLVI, 740).
Perhaps we have lost sensitivity to the value of relics in popular devotion, because, in our technological age, we have lost respect for the body in general. In our disposable society, people choose to cremate the body and scatter the remains sometimes over the sea, sometimes over the land. This is hardly consistent with the Christian belief that the body itself is sacred. The human body is not like a garment that, once worn and no longer useful, is simply to be tossed away. Even after cremation, the remains are to be treated with respect.
Our body, not just our spirit, comes from God. With the ancient psalmist, each of us can say, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps 139:14). Sacred from the Creator’s hands, we are even more precious through the blood of Christ. When we are united with Christ, our very bodies become the dwelling place of God. As St. Paul teaches, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” (1 Cor 6: 19).
Furthermore, these mortal bodies of ours are destined for eternal glory. As St. Paul teaches, “If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit that dwells in you” (Rm 8:11; cf. also 1 Cor 15: 52). We can better appreciate the place of relics in popular devotion when we recover something of the sacredness of the human body, created by God, redeemed in the blood of Christ, joined to his Body and destined for eternal glory.
Our respect for the relics of the saints expresses our admiration for the heroic holiness and exemplary virtue of the saints. It further expresses our belief in the resurrection of the body and the goodness of creation itself. It makes tangible our inner prayer to the saints in heaven asking them to add their intercession to our petitions on earth. We are body and spirit. We are flesh and blood. We are redeemed as such. In this economy of the Incarnation, where the Word became flesh, the right use of relics allows our prayer and our faith to take flesh and allows us to know the touch of God’s saints from their place in heaven.