Thursday, 13 November 2014

Do we still believe in Relics?

The other day I read the strangest thing. Cardinal Dolan of New York was refusing to dig up a dead man, chop him into pieces and divide the corpse among anyone who asked for it. Now why would you refuse to do that?

With such a bare few lines, most people would actually ask “How could anyone think for one minute that such a mutilation of human remains would be acceptable?”

St Yves' Skull
But then again, most people, sadly, are not Catholic. We in the Church do not bat an eyelid at the thought of a finger or piece of clothing, a skull or foot being on display, touched and even kissed. Indeed, as I write this I am in the presence of the thigh bone of Saint Felicissimus, a 1600 year old martyr from central Italy. For us it is perfectly normal to be surrounded by relics of the saints, often blood and bones. Every time a priest comes to the altar and kisses it, he is kissing the altar stone which contains the remains, no matter how small, of some saints.

In my last parish I offered relics to be venerated after Mass one day on their feast day. A parishioner stormed off in high dudgeon and later I received an email accusing me of “the worst excesses of the medieval Church!” I took it as a compliment.

"Worst excesses of the Medieval Church"? I don't think so!
But this practice of relics is not strange in the slightest. It fits into our normal habits as human beings. We often have photographs of dead relatives around the house, or a keepsake of a favourite granny. And as we remember the First World War, we remember all those women who carried around lockets of hair of their dead husband or sweetheart. We are surrounded by mementos of the dead. In life we have constant reminders of those who have gone before us. Perhaps we keep these things for sentimental reasons, but as we do so we go beyond the object itself. We would think it strange for a young man to wear a battered pair of cufflinks on his wedding day, so much at odds with his smart suit and impeccable tie. But we would have to choke back the tears when we found out that they were the ones his father wore at his wedding many years ago. A father who had recently died.

A relic is an object of the dead. Or even the person themselves. This can of course be taken to extremes. As well as carrying cremated remains around your neck in a “stylish and elegant pendant”, you can now turn your beloved’s ashes into a crystal or photo frame. How ironic if you turned them into an ashtray!* But I digress.

If you're going to turn them into anything, turn them into an ashtray.
It would be wrong and sinful, but at least it would be ironic.
The point of a relic is to remind us of the person. Part of its ancient meaning for us is being connected with the life and witness of the person whose relic it is. After I have gone up to the altar at the beginning of Mass I say in Latin “We beseech Thee, O Lord, by the merits of those of Thy saints whose relics are here, and of all the saints, that Thou wouldst vouchsafe to pardon me all my sins. Amen.” I am one with the Saints, those members of the Church who are now in Heaven, interceding for us, supporting us. And the truth is that we bring those people to mind when we are confronted with physical reminders of them. I have a deep regard for Saint Felicissimus of course (who doesn’t?) but I ask his prayers every time I come into this room because there is a huge bone of his just over there. I remember to pray for my grandfather when I wear his watch. Without Saint Felicissumus’ thigh or my grandfather’s watch, I would bring them to mind less often.

We are weak human beings and we need these things. Denying relics or denigrating them denies and denigrates something fundamental in the human soul. We cut ourselves off from the messiness of death and in the process we cut ourselves off from the wonderful messiness of life.

This is an ancient practice and must continue. I would love it if some day some middle aged priest looked up from his desk and saw again a weathered leg bone in a glass case and said “Ahhh yes, St Bede, the Chaplain Abroad, pray for us!”

How very human, how very Catholic and how very right.

* For Catholics who have been cremated their ashes have to be buried in the ground (not scattered). They should not become table decorations.

Published in 'Mass of Ages', the Latin Mass Society Magazine

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