A little over four years ago a friend of mine called enlisting my help with an unlikely and unexpected project. Her parish priest had just died and she was the executor of his estate. Upon his passing, he left his estate over 70 holy relics and artifacts from our Catholic tradition. The will was complicated and she needed me to help her find reliable guardians to take the holy relics in order to avoid violating Canon Law or the danger of the holy relics finding their way onto Ebay.
I discovered, much to my consternation, that holy relics are in fact on sale on Ebay, which is a gross violation of Canon Law and appalling on many levels. At that point in time, I had little to no experience with holy relics. Even during my time living in Europe, I did not stumble across a lot of holy relics.
A large relic collection
The first time I walked into her home to begin helping her and her husband with the task, I was stunned by the large collection that spread across their living room and dining room. There were reliquaries of varying sizes including one the size of a small tabernacle. I walked around the room with my mouth agape.
I surveyed the collection exclaiming in awe and wonder: Look, St. Thomas Aquinas! St. Therese of Lisieux! St. John the Baptist?! St. John Damascene! St. Teresa of Avila! St. Dominic! Our Lord’s manger! But then, standing in a rather simple reliquary for what it held, were three slivers from the True Cross Our Lord died upon. I was stunned. Pieces of the Cross that Christ died upon for our salvation were right in front of me on my friend’s dining room table.
We then got to work, matching the wax seals on each relic with the paper bulls we had that authenticated each one. Some never had the paperwork, but the vast majority did. Once we had a completed list of each authenticated relic, I went to work calling every priest I have known for the last ten years. After I exhausted my resources in the clergy, I turned to trustworthy members of the laity and religious orders. The relics ended up going to parishes and communities across the country as people offered to take over guardianship of these sacred items.
I took over guardianship of two relics that had no paperwork so they cannot be used for public veneration. They are relics of St. Nicodemus and St. Pius X. I also became guardian of a first class relic of St. Monica, which I have since passed on guardianship to a priest-friend of mine, and much to my utter surprise, I became the temporary guardian of the True Cross of Our Lord for over two years. Pieces of the Cross of our salvation stood in our home for over two years before it was passed onto its next guardians.
It was a task I felt completely unworthy to undertake, but Our Lord asked me to help find these beautiful and holy items safe homes and proper guardians. Holy relics are not something we own. We temporarily guard them for future generations. I was greatly blessed through the experience and my new found love for holy relics is something that I try to share with my brothers and sisters in Christ who may be ignorant or unclear—as I was until four years ago—about the gift of venerating and praying with holy relics.
What is a holy relic?
What exactly is a holy relic? Relics are material objects that can be directly linked to Our Lord or a saint. There are three classes of holy relics. First class relics are a piece or fragment of a saint’s body, often drops of blood or bone fragments. There are larger relics, such as the skull of St. Valentine. There are no first class relics of Our Heavenly Mother since she was assumed body and soul into Heaven.
Second class relics are from something a saint owned such as clothing, books, or other items. There are second class relics of Our Heavenly Mother’s such as pieces from her clothing. Third class relics are items touched by a saint or touched directly by any class first, second, or third class relic.
Relics and miraculous healings
Throughout history, holy relics have been associated with miraculous healings. One of the earliest accounts is found in the Old Testament when a dead man is brought back to life by touching the bones of the prophet Elisha (2 Kings 13:20-21). The True Cross was authenticated through the miraculous healing of a sick woman when Macarius, Bishop of Jerusalem, had her touch the Cross. Tradition holds that St. Helena, Constantine’s mother, discovered the True Cross of Our Lord.
The New Testament points to the miraculous nature of items associated with holy people, most especially Christ, when the hemorrhaging woman is healed after she touches the hem of His garment (Matthew 9:20-22).
God reaches us in our human nature: body and soul. We are the bridge between the material and the immaterial. God uses physical objects to draw us into supernatural realities both through the Sacraments and sacramentals. Material bread and wine become the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ. In a similar way, sacramentals and holy relics remind us of the models of virtue and holiness we find in the saints who lead us on the path to our ultimate destiny in heaven.
We use our bodies to touch and venerate holy relics as we are drawn deeper into the great mysteries of the Most Holy Trinity who has worked through His saints. We also venerate them in order to draw closer to the Communion of Saints and in so doing give glory and honor to God. They are a reminder of the hope we have in Christ and the journey we all undertake each day striving to love as Christ loves, so that one day we too may be saints.
image: Relic of the True Cross by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)