Believe it or not, relics are not a thing of the past. Although they have slipped in stature over the years, these physical remnants of Jesus and the saints are still reverenced by the faithful.
And there are some who believe the once-treasured mementos are on the verge of a revival.
Relics date back to Biblical times, when merely touching the cloth of St. Peter could heal the sick and dying, said Father Gregory B. Wilson, rector of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Charleston.
“So extraordinary were the mighty deeds God accomplished at the hands of Paul that when face cloths or aprons that touched his skin were applied to the sick, their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them” (Acts 19:11-12).
Father Wilson said this has nothing to do with magic, but is the result of faith.
Prayer and a belief in the power of God were the driving force, while the relic was just a conduit, the same way prayers flow through priests today, religious leaders explain.
In the early days of Christianity, the artifacts of Christ and his followers were of tremendous importance because of what they symbolized, said Father Bryan P. Babick, vicar for divine worship and sacraments.
Persecuted and killed for their faith, these men and women represented courage, holiness and devotion to the Lord.
Their followers would gather their remains not only for a proper burial, but also to protect them from desecration, even going so far as to pull them from still-smoldering fires.
Father Ronald R. Cellini, pastor of St. Gregory the Great in Bluffton, said in the Middle Ages relics were so closely associated with the power of God that villages fought over them.
Wherever the remnants were buried, Christians would unite around them to celebrate Mass and pray to God for guidance.
From that practice, the Catholic Church developed the custom of placing a small relic in the altar of each church. In fact, there was a time when altar relics were mandatory, and could be as small as a chip of bone, according to www.forallthesaints.info.
But standards were changed in the late 1960s requiring a larger piece that is an identifiable part of the body.
By the time of the Second Vatican Council, the church found itself trying to deflect the misunderstandings of non-Catholics, Father Babick said.
Among other things, Catholics were criticized for spreading superstitious practices and worshipping false idols, he said. This led to the removal of relics and statues from display at the altar, although artifacts are still placed in altar stones.
As relics lost their position of public reverence, they became more of a personal devotion. Most religious leaders and many lay people have an affinity for a certain saint.
Franciscan Father Paul M. Williams, pastor of St. Martin de Porres in Columbia, said relics represent the holy men and women of Christianity and the power of prayer.
He said praying to saints for their intercession is no different than people today, Catholic or not, asking priests to pray for them.
“I think they’re important. They teach us the importance of sanctity; remind us of what it’s possible to accomplish in God’s grace,” Father Williams said. “And we live in a world where we need all the help we can get.”
Msgr. Charles H. Rowland, pastor of Holy Spirit, said most churches in the diocese have relics, although the older ones don’t have identifying records.
Father Cellini said it used to be that anyone could get a relic from Rome, but that was stopped because people were selling them.
The sale of relics is strictly forbidden by the Catholic Church.
Now there is a process to follow before relics may be obtained or venerated, Father Cellini said. First, permission must be obtained from the bishop, which is then sent to the Vicariate of Rome, and from there to a religious order that authenticates and forwards the relics to the church.
The priest then places the relics in the altar stone for consecration. Before the artifact can receive public veneration, it must have a document of authenticity.
Members of St. Gregory the Great recently venerated their namesake on his holy day, Father Cellini said.
“Some day I think relics are going to get back in style and will be more valuable than sports memorabilia,” he said.
There are signs that relics are enjoying a resurgence in public devotion.
The relics of St. John Bosco are on tour. The display shows the bones and tissues of the right hand and arm, which have been placed within a wax replica of the 19th-century Italian saint’s body.
Pilgrimage dates and sites may be found at www.donbosco amongus.org.
Also, archaeologists in Bulgaria recently discovered what they believe to be remains of St. John the Baptist while excavating the site of a 5th century monastery.
Tests on the fragments are underway. Officials at the Vatican said they will not express an opinion on the findings until research is concluded.
Father Babick said in most cases, such as with the Shroud of Turin or the tilma of Our Lady of Guadalupe, there is more reason to believe than not.
But ultimately, a relic’s purpose is to remind Christians of what they represent, and it is not imperative that it be a proven artifact beyond a shadow of doubt.
It’s all about faith.
“We don’t worship the relic,” he said. “They remind us of the person’s holiness in life.”
Can the relics of the cross form a battleship?
Stories abound about the authenticity of relics from the True Cross.
According to church history, the cross that Jesus was crucified upon was discovered in Jerusalem by Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great.
Historical descriptions agree that she found Jesus’ tomb and three crosses, belonging to Jesus and the two thieves crucified with him.
The True Cross was then identified through its miraculous healing power.
While the first two had no effect on those they touched, the third was said to cure a dying woman and bring a man back to life.
After the discovery, fragments of the cross began turning up among the faithful.
Relics of the True Cross were a hot-ticket item, and doubters began to question whether the fragments were real.
John Calvin, a Protestant reformer, alleged that if all the pieces were gathered together there would be enough to build a battleship. Another exaggeration says the fragments could form an entire forest.
So Rohault de Fleury, a French scholar, decided to find out.
In 1870, he searched out, catalogued and measured all the known fragments. His findings state that their volume totaled 0.004 cubic meters, whereas an average Roman cross would occupy 0.178 cubic meters.
Fleury posited that the real question should be: What happened to the rest of the cross?
Although his findings have been questioned, nobody has been able to disprove him.
Find out how relics are rated
Items directly associated with the life of Christ, such as the manger or cross, or the physical remains of a saint.
An item that the saint wore or things the saint owned or frequently used, such as a crucifix or book.
Any object that is touched to a first- or second-class relic. Most third-class relics are small pieces of cloth.
What’s in your church?
Most churches have an altar stone containing relics of a saint, but not all know who their saint is, or have the documents to prove it.
Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, Charleston
The altar stone dates back to 1907 and is believed to contain the relics of St. Catherine, but there is no documentation, said Father Gregory B. Wilson, rector. On a personal note, the priest has a relic of the True Cross that was given to him as a gift.
St. Martin de Porres, Columbia
The church, which was dedicated in 1939, has an abundance of relics that Father Paul F. Williams discovered when he arrived. He said many of them have their Latin certification records, including St. Catherine of Sienna, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Agnes and Pope St. Pius. Unfortunately, there are no records to certify who is in the altar stone. Father Williams does have a personal relic of St. Martin de Porres and said it is “the real McCoy.”
St. Peter, Beaufort
Father Ronald R. Cellini, pastor of St. Gregory the Great in Bluffton, obtained three relics for the altar stone at St. Peter during his tenure there. He said they are St. Elena, Pope St. Clement, and St. Charles Lwanga. Father Cellini said they also have relics of all 12 apostles, including St. Peter, but they are not authenticated.
St. Gregory the Great has a relic of its namesake, as does St. Theresa the Little Flower in Summerville.
If you know what relic is in your church altar stone, send us a comment through our website, www.themiscellany.org.