It’s often said that Rome “doesn’t do that anymore.” I’ve heard that said about indulgences. “We don’t do that any more, not since Vatican II.” Really? Holy Mother church offered plenary indulgences at late as 2000 when there she offered a plenary indulgence, like the sort offered by Tetzel in the early 16th century! Vatican II ended in the early 1960s. Further, indulgences remain a part of Canon Law. You can read all about them right here on the Vatican website — did you know the Vatican has its own web domain? How weird is that? I know the Vatican has its own secret service and diplomatic corps but can you imagine the outrage if Billy Graham or Wheaton College has their own web doman? .whe or .bga?
A friend who, for his sake shall remain anonymous, sent me this Roman fundraising letter as part of the program to achieve beatification of John Paul II in record time. I don’t know if this program is authorized. This could be an example of popular Roman Catholic piety, but should we think that this is fundamentally alien from magisterial Roman dogma and piety?
In case you’re unsure here is a relevant passage from the Code of Canon Law:
§1 It is absolutely wrong to sell sacred relics.
§2 Distinguished relics, and others which are held in great veneration by the people, may not validly be in any way alienated nor transferred on a permanent basis, without the permission of the Apostolic See.
§3 The provision of §2 applies to images which are greatly venerated in any church by the people.
Here’s the pitch:
The Sale of Relics, a Sacrilege
Bones, more precious than jewels and more expensive than gold.
The early Christians affirmed that the devotion to the holy martyrs and their relics is a demonstration of veneration towards Jesus. The veneration of relics goes back to the times of the first Christians and the cross of Jesus is one of the first relics. Through the intercession of our saints, we turn to our God, and to be nearer to them we visit the places where they lived. We search for their memories and their imprints.
While the process of Beatification and Canonization of John Paul II continues, we desire to have at least one memento of him to feel closer to him. Every memento of him we can revere in a private way, for now, in the silence of our hearts, until the day the Church proclaims him a saint. Mnsgr. Marco Frisina, head of the Liturgical Office for the Vicariate of Rome, explains to us some things necessary to be able to better understand the mystery of relics.
What is a relic and what does it represent in the Catholic Church?
The word “relic” has its origin in the Latin word “reliquiae,” “remnants”. It is a physical memory, the living testimony of a saint or of a blessed. In the Church, a relic has always had great value because, as a remnant, a presence of the historical passage of this saint, it puts us in touch with the historical concreteness of his or her life. A relic has another value for the physical relationship that the saint had with the Eucharist, with the Lord, a relationship that is also sacred. The significance of the body of a person baptized, through the union of grace, is that it is a body-temple of the Holy Spirit, but the body of a saint is even more so because he has lived in his flesh this holiness, a communion of grace with God, and his body has been inhabited by that same grace in a solemn way. A relic allows us to almost be in contact with that body. In history, relics have also had an important role in the fight against the spirit of evil because relics are not loved by the devil since they are a physical reality that has special relationship with grace.
There are two classes of relics…
A first-class relic is made up of parts of the body; a second-class relic, instead, is from the garments or objects that have been in contact with the body of a saint, alive or dead. The objects that have been in contact with the tomb instead have a symbolic value, an affective one, and are called “mementos.” The gesture of touching an object that we use every day, a rosary for instance, to the tomb of a saint has only a devotional value.
When can we start to revere a blessed or a saint?
The veneration begins during the rite of beatification. The relics are brought solemnly to the altar, and from that moment on the Church allows the veneration of the relics of that saint in a public way. During the process of Beatification and Canonization it is not permitted to revere the Servant of God in that way. In the case of John Paul II, whom we all have revered during his lifetime for the affection that we had for him and for the holiness of his life, we can, for now, use in a private way the prayer card with ex indumentis – bits of his clothing – as a memory of a dear person. One needs to be always prudent and have a lot of patience obeying the Church, waiting for the Church to proclaim him a saint, and this will bring a lot of human and spiritual joy.
Who can have relics?
A first class relic can clearly only be given for public veneration, in which case to a church, an oratory, or a seminary. They have always been put under the altar so that the altar where the Eucharist is celebrated may have as its base a living memory of those persons that have been united with the sacrifice of Christ by means of their lives. You absolutely cannot buy or sell relics (of any kind) because they are something sacred, they do not have a price. The sale of relics on the Internet has become very problematic and allow me to say that this is also a sacrilege. Obviously relics are authentic only when the bishop countersigns them.
What are the most ancient relics in the history of the Church?
The relics brought from the Holy Land by Saint Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine I: the nails of the Cross, the stairs of the building of Pilate or the relics of the Cross of Jesus, which you can find in Rome or in the Basilica of Holy Cross in Jerusalem. These are relics that tradition has revered for 1700 years, and obviously they have a lot of value for us and for our prayer because they bring us directly to the time of the Lord. The Shroud of Turin also is a famous relic, impressive for its value. In Manoppello, the veil of Veronica is one of the relics that has great probability of truth but on which however we cannot express certainty.
Often people are moved by curiosity or popular devotion and visit a sanctuary only to see the head of Saint Catherine or the tongue of Saint Anthony. Doesn’t the devotion to relics distract from the living presence of Christ in the Tabernacle?
We always have to maintain the hierarchy: the first place is occupied by the Eucharist; then there is the Word of God and then the relics, including sacred images, keeping in mind that images are useful to prayer. It is important to have the proper devotion for a relic because it is easy to fall into superstition. A relic is not an amulet. So then, when I go to church, first I kneel in front of the Eucharist, and then I go to revere the saint because I sense his protection. The Saint prays for us and we can pray to the saint, who in turn intercedes with the Lord, the ultimate addressee of our prayer. When I kiss the relic of a saint, it is as if I am kissing the Mercy of God that is realized in this saint. When I pray in front of the body of a saint, I thank God who sustained this person on the way to holiness. We always have to remember that through the saint we adore God, as John Paul II taught us.
To Request a Holy Card with the ex -indumentis
In order to receive a holy card with the “ex indumentis,” simply send a request along with your complete mailing address to the Office of the Postulation either by mail, fax or e-mail.
On the back of every holy card is the prayer to implore graces through the intercession of the Servant of God John Paul II. Holy cards are available in Italian, English, French, Polish, German, Spanish, and Portuguese.
The holy cards are free, but we ask that you consider making a donation in order to help cover the costs of printing and postage.
Please forward your request to the following address:
Vicariato di Roma – III Piano
Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano, 6/A
00184 Roma (Italia)
Fax +39 06 69886240
Calvin dissected all of this in the sixteenth century. Apparently all the sites that hosted Calvin’s Inventory of Relics are gone but it’s all there in print in Selected Works of John Calvin, vol. 1.289ff.