I was sitting in my bishop’s apartment holding a reliquary which contained what could be a sliver of the True Cross. Beholding it filled me with a sense of wonder that is impossible to convey to those whose religion forbids the appreciation of relics. One cannot describe the ineffable fascination evoked by a holy relic; one can only experience it.
As I held it close to my face, I couldn’t help but ask myself whether this could be a part of the instrument used by my Lord to accomplish the redemption of the world. The uncertain and mystical stories which recount how the Empress Helena discovered the True Cross in Jerusalem some three centuries after the Passion naturally lend themselves to questions.
To many skeptics, to even question the spurious nature of a relic is held as a symptom of terminal credulity. As I sat there alone that evening with the True Cross, I recalled my Fundamentalist background, which was highly skeptical of such relics. Typical of such Fundamentalist attitudes is a comment by Ralph Woodrow in his little book Babylon Mystery Religion. He asserts that so many pieces of the True Cross “were scattered throughout Europe that the Reformer John Calvin (1509-1564) once said if all pieces were gathered together, they would form a good shipload, yet the cross of Christ was carried by one individual! Are we to believe that these pieces miraculously multiplied as when Jesus blessed the loaves and fishes?”[Ralph Woodrow, Babylon Mystery Religion(Riverside: Ralph Woodrow Evangelistic Association, 1986 [1990 edition]) 52.]
Unfortunately for Woodrow’s case, the French Reformer John Calvin had never done any serious research into the True Cross. About three hundred years later, in 1870, another Frenchman, Rohault de Fleury, attempted to catalogue all the pieces of the True Cross. After measuring the known pieces and estimating the volume of the lost ones, he calculated that the pieces made up only one-third of a typical Roman cross. So much for Calvin’s sensational claims.
Many Church Fathers and councils have denounced and attempted to check the abuses of those who have preyed upon the unwitting with spurious relics. Augustine freely used miracles resulting from relics as an apologetic tool to establish the credentials of Christianity against paganism,[De civitate Dei (City of God) 22:8.] yet he also saw the need to condemn the unscrupulous who were masquerading as monks and trafficking in counterfeit relics.[De opere monachorum 28.] The First and Second Councils of Lyons (1245 and 1275) forbade the veneration of “newly recovered” relics unless their credentials had first been verified by the pope.
To restrain the omnipresent con-artists as well as the opportunistic propaganda of the Reformers, the Council of Trent in its twenty-fifth session enacted strict guidelines to maintain the propriety of the veneration of relics and for the authentication of dubious ones. No relic, it stated, was to be recognized unless it had first been investigated and endorsed by the local bishop. It is unknown when the practice of accompanying a relic with an official document of authentication began, but this was helpful in controlling many of the abuses. Another sensible reform enacted in the post-Tridentine Church was a prohibition on the sale of relics.
There’s more to non-Catholic aversion to relics than the question of authenticity. Non-Catholics often feel that the veneration of relics is unbiblical at best and magic or idolatry at worst. They claim ascribing miracles to relics borders on the talismanic or a degenerate fetishism.
First of all, what are relics? Relics are the remains or possessions of holy persons and are divided into three categories. First-class relics consist of the bodily remains of saints and the instruments of Christ’s Passion, such as the True Cross. Second-class relics are personal belongings of saints, such as articles of clothing, or the instruments used in the torture and death of martyrs. Third-class relics are any objects which have come into physical contact with first- or second-class relics.
While no Catholic is compelled to venerate any particular relic (and one shouldn’t if one has doubts as to its authenticity), the Church always has maintained that the veneration of relics is proper. Harkening back to the eighth-century iconoclastic controversy and the seventh ecumenical council at Nicaea (787), the Council of Trent maintained against the Reformers that the honor given to a relic, statue, or icon was honor not to an object (fetishism and idolatry), but to the person it represented. Latria (Greek: worship) must be given to God alone, whereas dulia (Greek: veneration or respect) may be given to holy people or articles.
Ralph Woodrow points out in his book that the Israelites were led into idolatry by the bronze serpent they had kept as a “relic” from the time of the Exodus. The bronze serpent was an object God instructed Moses to construct so that Israelites looking upon it might be spared the judgment which the Lord was inflicting upon them for their constant complaining (Num. 21:4-9, 1 Cor. 10:9, 11). Later King Hezekiah had the bronze serpent destroyed because the people had turned it into an idol and burned incense to it as to a god (2 Kings 18:4). Woodrow’s point is well taken. To give an object worship reserved for God alone (latria) is idolatry.
A Catholic venerates a relic of Christ much as a man gazes longingly on and even kisses a photograph of his beloved. Because God so loved the world that he sent his Son to die for it (John 3:16), a Christian cherishes any memento (relic) of Christ. The Church upholds the right of Christians to express their love for God in this way against the misguided strictures of the Reformers.
Earthly remains of the saints are venerated because the saints are living members of Christ and their bodies, like ours, were temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16-17, 6:15, 19, Eph. 2:19-22). These remains will one day be awakened and glorified (1 Cor. 15:42-54). While the saints were on earth, God bestowed many graces upon his Church through them (2 Cor. 1:11), and he continues to do so now that they are glorified in God’s presence (Heb. 12:1). We honor (dulia) the relics, statues, and images of the saints with a veneration that is directed toward the saints themselves, and in honoring the saints we honor Christ whose members they are (1 Cor. 12:27). In fact, Protestants honor the relics of their dead when they visit or lay flowers on the graves of their loved ones. If a Catholic does something similar with respect to a saint to whom he may have no blood relation, he is accused of idolatry.
The critic who compares the veneration of relics to magic fails to comprehend either magic or the veneration of relics. Magic employs material objects in order to cause a supernatural effect through demonic forces. Using relics doesn’t compel God to act in a certain way. Miraculous events associated with relics are simply cases in which God, according to his sovereign will, uses the mementos of Christ and his saints as conduits of grace. Nothing could be more scriptural.
Luke 6:18-19 tells us, “Those troubled by evil spirits were cured, and the people all tried to touch him [Jesus], because power was coming from him and healing them all.” This power is again referred to in Luke 8:40-48, where the woman who touches the tassel of Jesus’ shawl is healed of the hemorrhage she had endured for twelve years.
According to Mosaic Law, menstruating women were considered ritually unclean (Lev. 15:25-30). Rabbinical law later included hemorrhaging women in this category, and everything such a woman touched was considered defiled. Thus the hemorrhaging woman in Luke 8:40-48 doesn’t try to touch Jesus himself, but tries secretly (“from behind”) to touch a tassel on his prayer shawl (Num. 15:38-41, Deut. 22:12).
Was the hemorrhaging woman in Luke 8:40-48 guilty of superstition or fetishism? No, there is none of that, nor did Jesus’ prayer shawl have any magical effect. Because of the woman’s faith, the prayer shawl was the conduit of the grace which came directly from Jesus. Jesus tells us as much in Luke 8:46, where he responds to the woman’s touch: “Someone has touched me; I know that power has gone out from me.”
We also learn from Scripture that not only power, but holiness could be transmitted through contact, even through articles of clothing. In the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the ideal Temple, regulations are given for the attire of priests: “When [the priests] go out into the outer court where the people are, they are to take off the clothes they have been ministering in and are to leave them in the sacred rooms and put on other clothes, so that they do not consecrate the people by means of their garments” (Ezek. 44:19). Later on Ezekiel is shown special rooms in the Temple and is told, “This is the place where the priests will cook the guilt offering and the sin offering and bake the grain offering, to avoid bringing them into the outer court and consecrating the people” (Ezek. 46:20).
In the Gospel of Matthew we read that the people of Gennesaret brought all their sick to Jesus and “begged him to let the sick just touch the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed” (Matt. 14:35-36). Here again Jesus’ garment is used as a conduit of the power of God. It doesn’t seem likely that Jesus would reinforce “superstition” by allowing these people to be healed by touching the fringe of his garment if such an action were truly superstitious.
The same idea is probably behind 2 Kings 2:13-14. The prophet Elisha has just watched his teacher, Elijah, being taken into heaven in a flying chariot and notices that Elijah’s cloak or mantle had fallen to the ground. In an act of succession to prophetic leadership, Elisha picks up the mantle and dons it himself. He then goes to the Jordan and, calling on “the God of Elijah,” strikes the water with the mantle, and it immediately parts for him to cross over. The power of God was conveyed through a relic of a departed saint.
We find similar phenomena in Acts 5:15-16. The people of Jerusalem bring out the sick and those tormented by evil spirits and lay them in the street “that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on them as he passed by. Crowds gathered also from around Jerusalem . . . and all of them were healed.” In Acts 19:11-12 the grace that God gave to Paul was directed through the items, specifically handkerchiefs and aprons, that came into contact with him. Later on in Church history, a custom arose of going to Paul’s grave and lowering handkerchiefs into his tomb on a string so they could touch his remains, making them third-class relics. In both Acts 5:15-16 and Acts 19:11-12 we see the power of God being conveyed through items associated with the apostles.
While the Israelites were wandering in the desert, the Lord fed them by dropping bread-like manna on the ground at night. In Exodus 16:33 Moses instructs Aaron to place a jar of manna inside the Ark of the Covenant. Later on, in Exodus 40:20 (cf. Ex. 25:16, 21, Deut. 10:1-5), the Decalogue is placed in the Ark as well. To complete the list, Hebrews 9:4 adds Aaron’s rod to the items placed in the Ark. In essence the Ark, the holiest object in Israel, was a large, portable reliquary!
Not only were items associated with the saints used by God as conduits of grace, but the saints’ physical remains were used by God as well. In 2 Kings 13:20-21 we read that, after the prophet Elisha had died, “while some Israelites were burying a man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders so they threw the man’s body into Elisha’s tomb. When the body touched Elisha’s bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet.” Hardly a more dramatic example of the power of God working through relics could be imagined!
The ancient Jews were scrupulously observant about attending to the remains of their ancestors. In Genesis 50:25 Joseph made his family swear an oath to carry his bones out of Egypt when the time came for them to return to Palestine. This is precisely what Moses himself did over 400 years later when the Israelites were preparing to leave Egypt during the Exodus (Ex. 13:19).
Later in the history of God’s people, this respect for the remains of the dead is evidenced in the book of Tobit (early second century B.C.). Tobit, a devout Israelite deported to Nineveh from the northern kingdom in 721 B.C., was ridiculed and persecuted for burying those fellow captives of his who died (Tob. 1:16-2:8). The motivation behind Tobit’s actions was that in Israel the lack of a proper burial was considered a great misfortune (1 Kings 13:22, 2 Macc. 5:10, Jer. 16:6). This reverence for the remains of the departed can be seen at the time of John the Baptist. After Herod had John beheaded, his disciples claimed his body and laid it in a tomb (Mark 6:29).
The early Christians were of the same mind with regard to their martyred brethren. The Jerusalem Church, while under “a great persecution” after Stephen’s martyrdom, managed to obtain his remains (quite a courageous act under the circumstances) and give him proper burial rites (Acts 8:1-2). According to an account based on the official court proceedings in Rome around the year 165, the Christian apologist Justin Martyr and six companions were sentenced by Rusticus, the prefect of Rome, to be executed. “The holy martyrs, having glorified God and having gone forth to the accustomed place, were beheaded and perfected their testimony in the confession of the Savior. Some of the faithful, having secretly removed their bodies, laid them in a suitable place, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ working with them, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.”[Martyrdom of Justin Martyr 5.]
Another account of a martyrdom, occurring a few years earlier (circa 156) in Asia Minor, is that of Polycarp, who was the bishop, our contemporary witness states, of “the Catholic Church at Smyrna.” The document has Polycarp claiming that he had “served” Christ 86 years, which indicates that he had probably been baptized as an infant around 69. Tradition unanimously states that Polycarp had been taught the Faith by the apostle John and later was made bishop of Smyrna by him as well.[See, for example, Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3:3:4 and Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3:36, 5:20].
The account, which scholars consider genuine, was written by the Church at Smyrna and is addressed “to the colony of God’s Church at Philomelium and to all colonies of the Holy Catholic Church everywhere.” Since it was intended to edify the universal Church and was in fact preserved by the Church (there exist several good copies), its contents are likely representative of the attitude toward martyrdom in the mid-second century. After relating Polycarp’s brave witness before the governor and his subsequent execution, the document gives an account of how the Christians of Smyrna tried to recover Polycarp’s remains and the effort by Nicetas, father of the police commissioner, to thwart the attempt:
“But the jealous and envious Evil One . . . took care that not even his poor body should be taken by us, though many desired to do this, and to claim our share [Greek: koinonasai] [According to Joseph H. Thayer, the Greek verb koinoneo means “to come into communion” or “fellowship,” to “become a sharer, be made a partner.” It’s used as “sharing” in spiritual blessings in Romans 15:27 and 1 Peter 4:13.] in the hallowed relics. Accordingly [the Evil One] put it into the head of Nicetas . . . to make an application to the governor not to release the body, ‘in case,’ he said, ‘they should forsake the Crucified One and take to worshiping this fellow instead.’ . . . Little do they know that it could never be possible for us to abandon the Christ who died for the salvation of every soul that is to be saved in all the world – the Sinless One dying for sinners – or to worship any other. It is to him, as the Son of God, that we give our adoration, while to the martyrs, as disciples and imitators of the Lord, we give the love they have earned by their matchless devotion to their king and teacher. . . When the centurion saw that the Jews were spoiling for a quarrel, he had the body fetched out publicly, as is their usage, and burned.
“So after all we did gather up his bones – more precious to us than jewels and finer than pure gold – and we laid them to rest in a spot suitable for the purpose. There we shall assemble, as occasion allows, with glad rejoicings, and with the Lord’s permission we shall celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom.”[Martyrdom of Polycarp 17-18.]
What makes this account so interesting is its apologetic nature. The author feels it necessary to interrupt his narrative at this point to give a defense of the apparently widespread practice of the veneration of the relics of martyrs. Unbelievers were criticizing the superstitious tendency of Christians to worship dead people – first this martyr Jesus and then all these other martyrs, including Polycarp, if given the opportunity. Against this pagan charge the author of the Martyrdom of Polycarp gives the classic explanation of the Catholic distinction between latria, worship given to God, and dulia, honor given to the saints whom God himself honors. Reading this apologia for the veneration of relics nearly two thousand years later, one can’t help but wonder at how little anti-Catholic allegations have changed with the times.
Also noteworthy is the reference to placing Polycarp’s bones “in a spot suitable for the purpose.” The relics of martyrs and other saints were often kept in the place of worship, which was usually a large private home (Rom. 16:3-5, 2 John 10). Here, it’s said, they will “celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom.” The entrance of the saint into the Kingdom of God is the Christian’s “birth” into the next world, and they celebrate the Eucharist on this “birthday.” We are seeing here the infancy of the Christian liturgical calendar.
Under Roman law executed criminals, especially enemies of the state as the Christians were perceived to be, weren’t entitled to the normal burial customs. Rather than allow friends or family to claim the remains, the body was ignominiously cast into the city dump to be fed upon by the dogs. The only way Christians could recover the bodies of their martyrs was through bribery, stealth, or influential friends (Mark 15:42-45).
When the Christians’ preoccupation with the relics of their martyrs became generally known, the corpses of the martyrs were burned and the ashes scattered, or the corpses were thrown, properly weighted, into a river.
For this reason there was considerable secrecy as to the location of Christian relics lest they be confiscated and defiled by the pagan authorities. Emperor Julian “the Apostate,” the nephew of Constantine the Great, wrote in one of his ranting, anti-Christian tracts that even in the time of the apostle John, “the tombs of Peter and Paul were being worshiped – secretly, it is true.”[Against the Galileans.]
By the middle of the third century the Christians were so closely associated with tombs, cemeteries, and catacombs that the Emperor Valerian issued an edict prohibiting under penalty of death Christians from assembling in cemeteries. As Emperor Julian would later describe it, the Christians “had filled the whole world with tombs and sepulchers” at which they would “grovel and pay them honor.” Of course, it was the barbaric persecutions of Julian’s predecessors that gave the Christians so many tombs at which to “grovel.”
When church buildings began to be built, they were usually constructed upon the graves of martyrs, the actual remains usually located in or directly under the altar (Rev. 6:9). St. Peter’s in Rome is built over the graveyard on Vatican Hill where, ancient tradition records, lay the remains of Peter.
About the year 200 a Roman priest named Gaius in a private letter referred familiarly to the tropaion (Greek: a memorial, as in a shrine) of Peter standing on Vatican Hill.[This reference is preserved in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History (2:25), where Eusebius is speaking of the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul in Rome, which are “confirmed by the fact that the cemeteries there are still called by the names of Peter and Paul.” From the context given to us by Eusebius, Gaius was corresponding with Proclus, the “leader of the Phrygian heretics” (Montanists). This exchange is one in which the graves of the apostles were appealed to in order to sanction certain beliefs.] This tropaion was a large structure with a courtyard, a graveyard for the popes, a baptistery, and a portable platform next to an altar located over Peter’s remains. Emperor Constantine built a basilica over the top of the tropaion, and the present St. Peter’s was constructed on top of Constantine’s basilica during the Renaissance.
In 1939, while digging underneath the floor of St. Peter’s in the underground area known as the grottoes, workers accidentally uncovered the ancient Roman graveyard. With permission from Pope Pius XII, archaeologists began an arduous six-year excavation which was to unearth Peter’s tomb under the high altar. After decades of study researchers were able to confirm the authenticity of the relics, and Pope Paul VI was able to announce in 1968 that “the relics of St. Peter have been identified in a manner which we believe convincing. . . . Very patient and accurate investigations were made with a result which we believe positive.” The bones themselves, with what is left of the purple cloth discovered with them, are in transparent receptacles in a small chamber in the Grottoes under the high altar.
Another relic to seize the spotlight in recent years is the Shroud of Turin, which appeared in France during the fourteenth century. The Shroud possesses a full-length image, both front and back, of what seems to be Jesus Christ lying in the state of death.
The image exhibits nail wounds in the wrists and feet, a skinned knee, horrible scourge wounds from a Roman flagellum on the back and buttocks, a swollen nose and eye, and wounds on the head as from a cap of thorns. The eyes are covered by what seem to be coins, giving the image an eerie staring look.
Until the end of the nineteenth century the Shroud shared the fate of most relics that appeared late in history – it was derided by the clergy and venerated by the laity. The situation changed dramatically in 1898 when a photographer took a picture of the Shroud. Developing the photograph revealed that the image on the cloth was actually a negative. The “positive” likeness, the natural light and dark shading, appeared on the film negative. Since photographic negatives were unknown before the advent of the camera, the finding caused a sensation. The Shroud has ever since intrigued the scientific community and captured the imagination of the public.
A scientific commission in 1973 has given the Shroud its most thorough analysis to date. Since that time, every form of non-destructive testing known has been employed to learn more about this relic: Among the researchers have been medical physicians to test the blood on the Shroud, pathologists, criminologists knowledgeable on Roman executions, textile experts, historians specializing in first-century Jewish burial customs, chemists, spectroscopists, botanists to study the pollen in the Shroud, physicists, art historians, New Testament scholars, and archaeologists. The Shroud surely has been the most studied piece of cloth in history.
In 1976 two U.S. Air Force Academy assistant professors, both physicists, using a device called an image analyzer, discovered the Shroud yielded a perfect, three-dimensional image, something unachievable with ordinary photographs. The pollen extracted by botanists allowed them, by isolating pollens exclusive to certain regions, to determine the Shroud had been outside of France and Turin, most notably in the Jerusalem/Dead Sea area, Edessa (modern Urfa in southeastern Turkey, not to be confused with the Ukrainian port city of Odessa), and Constantinople (modern Istanbul).
There is no trace of there ever having been paint pigment on the cloth, and medical teams have found the wounds too flawlessly portrayed to be made by a medieval artist. Anatomical knowledge as depicted on the Shroud simply didn’t exist until recently. Contrary to popular myth, the consensus among most scientists, without admitting the Turin Shroud is the actual shroud of Jesus Christ, is that it is not a forgery.
How many have gazed at the face upon the Shroud and uttered to themselves, “Surely this is the face which awaits me upon the Day of Judgment”? Others, perhaps uncomfortable with the whole idea of relics, would rather find evidence of forgery. They have welcomed the recent carbon-14 testing that dated the Shroud to between 1260 and 1390. (To their annoyance, more recently still the carbon-14 results have been called into doubt: Possibly they must be invalidated because of centuries- old contamination of the cloth.)
Assuming that this three-dimensional negative image wasn’t forged by a medieval swindler, and that the results of the carbon-dating are accurate, the question remains: How was the Shroud created? The Shroud is a tantalizing anomaly. Adroitly eluding both authentication and invalidation, it seems to be God’s grand laugh at the technologically sophisticated twentieth century. We’ll see much debate over the results of the radiocarbon dating.[One of the Shroud of Turin’s leading exponents, Ian Wilson, has written some of the best books available at the popular level for those wanting to learn more on this subject. Recommended is his Shroud of Turin (New York: Image, 1978), which gives the results of scientific investigation and convincingly constructs a possible pre-fourteenth-century history of the Shroud by tying it to the veil of Veronica legend. Wilson’s latest book, Holy Faces, Secret Places (New York: Doubleday, 1991) questions the validity of the radiocarbon dating and strengthens the hypothetical history of the Shroud. For a good overall treatment of the subject of relics, see Joan Carroll Cruz, Relics (Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor, 1984).]
Could this be the linen cloth Joseph of Arimathea purchased and in which he wrapped the body of the Lord (Mark 15:46)? The Gospel of John records that when Peter and John saw Jesus’ grave clothes and linen strips lying folded up, they “saw and believed” (John 20:6-8). Could it have been the image on the Shroud which caused this reaction rather than simply concluding, as Mary Magdalene did, that Jesus’ body had been taken by grave robbers? Such questions, while intriguing, will no doubt only be answered in eternity.
Sitting alone in my bishop’s apartment with that reliquary containing the True Cross was an experience I won’t soon forget. If the Empress Helena erred and I wasn’t holding the True Cross, then still I was holding a mysterious artifact: venerated since the days of Emperor Constantine, captured by the Persian King Chosroes II when he sacked Jerusalem in 614, and regained by the Christians in 629, only to be crudely mocked by the Protestant Reformers a thousand years later. The relic’s having been the focus of so much Christian history alone compelled fascination. Yet what if Helena were right? Sitting alone, I marveled that I could be holding in my hand the very instrument used to achieve my salvation – and not mine alone, but the salvation of the world. What art can capture the sense of awe that is felt at such a moment?