By Fr. Aaron Johanneck
(From a series found in The Prairie Catholic)
Whenever I give a tour of a church and explain the different items that are typically found in Catholic churches, one of the elements that most fascinates many are the relics that are placed in the altar and are sometimes also on display in another part of the church. “That’s really a piece of him/her?” is a question I often hear.
The Catholic practice of venerating relics often seems strange to non-Catholics. It can seem strange to Catholics as well, especially in the United States where relics do not typically feature as prominently as they do in many churches in Europe, for example. The relics with which we are likely acquainted are very small and difficult to identify. They are typically a small piece of bone, a strand of hair, or, in the case of some more recently canonized saints like St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), a drop of blood. In Europe, however, it is not uncommon to find whole bodies laid to rest beneath one of the altars of a church, or other large and more recognizable relics on obvious display in reliquaries. In Padua, Italy you can view the tongue of St. Anthony—for example—who is not only very good at helping us find lost items but was also a very gifted preacher. One of my favorite relics is the right forearm and hand of St. Francis Xavier in the Church of the Gesù in Rome. It is with this arm that he is said to have baptized perhaps 700,000 people in India and other parts of Asia!
The practice of venerating relics is very ancient in the Church. The first reference commonly cited dates to about the year 155 AD with the martyrdom of St. Polycarp (who was a disciple of St. John the Apostle). The report of his martyrdom states that after Polycarp was burned at the stake his fellow Christians, “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.” The practice of praying and celebrating the holy Mass over the tombs of martyrs is very likely the origin of the practice of placing martyrs’ relics (it is now permitted to use the relics of saints who are not martyrs as well) in altars.
Relics are categorized according to three classes. A first-class relic is some part of the saint’s body. A second-class relic is a piece of the saint’s clothing or another item that was used by the saint. A third-class relic is an object that has been touched to another relic. Regardless of the class, relics help us to feel connected to the saints in a real, tangible way. They also help us to understand that the stories of the saints are not legends (although some elements of their stories might be) but are the stories of real men and women throughout the ages who devoted their lives entirely to God.
On Sunday, October 28 the Diocese of New Ulm is privileged to host both first- and second-class relics of St. Pio of Pietrelcina—better known as Padre Pio—at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in New Ulm. Be sure to make a pilgrimage to New Ulm that day to venerate the relics of this great saint. See if you can find out anything about relics that might be in your own church as well. Experience how venerating these relics helps you feel more tangibly connected to the saints throughout the ages.