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Saturday, January 25, 2014
What are Relics and Why do Catholics Honor them?

The veneration of relics is a practice that precedes Christianity and has its origin in Judaism. In the 2nd Book of Kings (cf. 13:21) we read the account of a corpse being thrown "into the grave of Elisha". Upon contact with the prophet Elisha's remains, the corpse resuscitated to life. Holy objects (such as Aaron's staff, the Ten Commandments, and manna from the desert) were both revered, and preserved in the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:10).

The Church has adopted the veneration of sacred objects from Judaism. Many miracles have been worked in the Church's history through these sacred objects. Tradition tells us that Saint Helena, Constantine's mother, discerned which of the three crosses found on the hill of Calvary was the True Cross, upon which our Savior died for us, by placing a sick child on them and then he was restored to health when he made contact with the True one.

Listed in the pre-1962 Missal is an often unknown feast - that of The Sacred Relics for November 5th of each year. This Mass was a "Mass in Some Places" and was not universally celebrated.  The great liturgical Dom Prosper Guéranger recounts the spirituality for this feast.  The following is excerpted from Dom Prosper Guéranger's entry in The Liturgical Year in Volume XV of the 1983 Marian House edition of the English translation by the Benedictines of Stanbrook.
"Had we angels' eyes, we should see the earth as a vast field sown with seed for the resurrection. The death of Abel opened the first furrow, and, ever since, the sowing has gone on unceasingly the wide world over. This land of labour and of suffering, what treasures it already holds laid up in its bosom! And what a harvest for heaven, when the Sun of justice, suddenly darting forth His rays, shall cause to spring up as suddenly from the soil the elect ears ripe for glory! No wonder that the Church herself blesses and superintends the laying of the precious grain in the earth." 
"But the Church is not content to be always sowing. Sometimes, as though impatient of delay, she raises from the ground the chosen seed she had sown therein. Her infallible discernment preserves her from error; and, disengaging from the soil the immortal germ, she forestalls the glory of the future. She encloses the treasure in gold or precious stuffs, carries it in triumph, invites the multitudes to come and reverence it; or she raises new temples to the name of the blessed ones, and assigns him the highest honour of reposing under the altar, whereon she offers to God the tremendous Sacrifice." 
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Yet this is not the only case of relics being celebrated by the Church.  Each year the Church traditionally celebrated on August 5th the Feast of the Finding of the Relics of St. Stephen the First Martyr.
The second festival in honor of the holy protomartyr St. Stephen was instituted by the Church on the occasion of the discovery of his precious remains. His body lay long concealed, under the ruins of an old tomb, in a place twenty miles from Jerusalem, called Caphargamala, where stood a church which was served by a venerable priest named Lucian. In the year 415, on Friday, the 3d of December, about nine o'clock at night, Lucian was sleeping in his bed in the baptistery, where he commonly lay in order to guard the sacred vessels of the church. Being half awake, he saw a tall, comely old man of a venerable aspect, who approached him, and, calling him thrice by his name, bid him go to Jerusalem and tell Bishop John to come and open the tombs in which his remains and those of certain other servants of Christ lay, that through their means God might open to many the gates of His clemency. 
This vision was repeated twice. After the second time, Lucian went to Jerusalem and laid the whole affair before Bishop John, who bade him go and search for the relics, which, the Bishop concluded, would be found under a heap of small stones which lay in a field near his church. In digging up the earth here, three coffins or chests were found. Lucian sent immediately to acquaint Bishop John with this. He was then at the Council of Diospolis, and, taking along with him Eutonius, Bishop of Sebaste, and Eleutherius, Bishop of Jericho, came to the place. Upon the opening of St. Stephen's coffin the earth shook, and there came out of the coffin such an agreeable odor that no one remembered to have ever smelled anything like it. 
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Sometimes relics are transferred from one location to another with great solemnity when a saint is canonized.  In the United States, this recently occurred with the transfer of the relics for Mother Guerin.

Relics are important and the source of Pilgrimage.

The Holy Relics of Aachen Germany are exposed only for 10 days once every 7 years. Few places rank beside Aachen in the history of Christian Europe. Aachen’s Cathedral was built in 790-800 AD as the palace chapel of Charlemagne, King of the Francs and Holy Roman Emperor (born 742; died 814). Charlemagne was given his final resting place in this cathedral, which was the most distinguished sanctuary in his realm. For nearly 600 years, from 936 to 1531, kings were enthroned on Charlemagne’s throne, after having been anointed and crowned at the main altar.

During the Middle Ages, Aachen became one of Christendom’s most important places of pilgrimage, on a par with Jerusalem, Rome, and Santiago de Compostela. The Aachen pilgrimage, which has been taking place every seven years ever since 1349, is devoted to worshiping the four Holy Relics collected by Blessed Charlemagne:

  • the cloak of Our Lady
  • the swaddling clothes of the Infant Jesus
  • the loin clothes worn by Our Lord during His Crucifixion
  • and the cloth where the head of St. John the Baptist was placed after his beheading

These Holy Relics will be officially taken out of the 13th century reliquary and ritually displayed between June 20-30, 2014.  Click here for more information.

As relics are important, The Church has systematized these sacred objects into classes. A First Class relic is any corporeal remain. A Second Class relic is any object that belonged to the Saint. And a third class relic is an object (e.g. Rosary, piece of cloth, holy card, etc) that has touched a first or a second class relic.

An example of first and second class relics may be found at the Shrine of St. John Neumann in Philadelphia.  At this shrine is preserved the incorruptible body of St. John Neumann under the altar in a glass case.  It is truly a miracle that some saints' bodies do not decay even after hundreds of years and without embalming as a testament to God and to the authenticity of the Catholic Church. The saint's body is the first class relic while the museum of artifacts of items used and owned by St. John are 2nd class relics. You may see a complete listing of photos by clicking here.

For more information on relics and incorruptible saints, see Regina Magazine.


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