The Veneration of Relics
Christopher O’Donnell, O.Carm. This article was written in preparation for the Visit of the Relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux to Ireland from April to June 2001.
The visit to Ireland of the relics of St. Thérèse in the year 2001 can be seen as a pilgrimage in reverse. Normally people travel on pilgrimage to where a holy person is venerated. In the case of Thérèse we can see that in a sense she is coming to Ireland, just as her relics have visited over a dozen countries since their first journey throughout France in 1994. The enthusiastic reception of the reliquary in so many countries is perhaps in marked contrast with the saint’s own prediction her body would decay like any other. The three exhumations that took place revealed only bones, though signs and extraordinary manifestations were not, however, absent. The Carmelite habit in which she was buried was found not to have completely disintegrated at the first exhumation and a palm buried with her was in a state of perfect preservation. At the second exhumation the new habit was decayed, but a white silk ribbon was intact which bore the words: "I intend to spend my heaven doing good on earth. After my death, I shall make a shower of roses rain down."
Her burial was quite providential. It had long been customary for Carmelites to have a cemetery in their grounds. But a civil law had been passed shortly before Thérèse’s death stipulating interment only in public graveyards. Thérèse’s maternal uncle, Isidore Guerin, had bought a plot for the Carmelites, and soon people in their thousands were visiting her grave. Cures and spiritual favours began to be reported there very soon after her death. Her grave and these wonders certainly contributed substantially to her veneration, and hastened her beatification. It was part of what Pius XI would call, "the storm of glory". Thérèse reaches beyond the grave.
There are indications that Thérèse had some premonition about her future destiny, which is summed up in her well-known promise to spend her heaven doing good on earth. On at least two occasions during her final illness she indicated that things belonging to her, her nail-clippings and rose petals that she had loosened might be treasured later. We only have the account of her sister Pauline, Mother Agnes. We do not know how she said these things: did she smile? how seriously have we to take Agnes’ comment that she spoke gravely? It is clear anyway that her sense of being able to send a shower of roses after her death was amply confirmed.
The visit of the saint’s relics to Ireland can be seen as a great grace. But it will have to be placed in an appropriate context. There is always the danger of superstition or magic where relics are involved. We can speak of these errors when power is ascribed to something beyond its natural capacities, such as to some words of a formula, to a rabbit’s foot or a horseshoe. Relics have no virtue in themselves; their chequered history in the Church, however, shows both their dangers and their beauty.
Church teaching on relics
Three times in ecumenical councils there have had to be solemn pronouncements on the subject—and for quite different reasons. At the Council of Nicea II (a.d. 787) there were those who sought such a pure religion that they were totally against any representation of Christ or the saints in images, and they also rejected relics. Foremost to the defence of icons and relics had been St. John Damascene (d. ca. 749): and the Church defending the legitimacy of icons and relics drew on his teaching: homage or respect is not really paid to an inanimate object, but to the holy person, and indeed the veneration of a holy person, is itself honour paid to God. Four hundred years later there was a different problem. Now it was abuse of relics, false relics and exaggerations. At the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) the Church condemned such abuses, but defended the good use of relics. A similar time elapsed when at the Reformation the idea of relics was again attacked. This time the Council of Trent in 1563 defended the veneration of relics.
The Catholic position was therefore spelled out over a period of some eight hundred years, even though the use of relics goes back almost to the time of the Apostles. St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) following St. Augustine pointed out that it was natural that people should treasure what is associated with the dead, like a ring or the garment of a parent. He then developed four reasons already outlined in John Damascene which would later be taken up by Trent: the saints are members of Christ, they are children and friends of God and they are our intercessors. Therefore we want to draw close to them through their relics.
The place of relics
But do we really need relics, parts of the body of a saint such as bone, a hair (called a first class relic) or cloth that has been in contact with the saint’s body (a second class relic)? If we have a lively faith in the Eucharist, do we need something infinitely inferior to the Body and Blood of the Lord? The origin of relics was largely associated with the Eucharist, which was celebrated at the burial place of holy people. In time the custom grew in the Church that Mass should be celebrated on the relics of the saints in the altar stone or wrapped in the corporal. Indeed, since Nicea II churches are not to be consecrated without relics, a point made again in Church law as recently as 1977 in the revised Rite of Dedication of a Church. The Church is therefore comfortable with relics and the Eucharist being somehow coupled together. Indeed Mass begins with the priest kissing the altar, that is the relics contained in it.
If, however, we are to understand the veneration of relics, and put to rest any unease associated with their veneration we need to get behind the practice of the Church in its Councils and liturgy to more profound reasons. Ultimately the use of relics can be understood only in a double context. Relics have had divine approbation and they reflect the incarnational nature of our Christian religion. The issue of God’s approval emerges from the fact that there have been at all times miracles and especially healings associated with the relics of the saints. Already in the New Testament we find that handkerchiefs and other garments which had touched the flesh of St. Paul at Ephesus cured diseases (see Acts 19:12). In the Old Testament miracles had been worked through the mantle of Elijah and the bones of Elisha (see 2 Kings 2:14; 13:21).
Granted then that God has been pleased in this way to work wonders in biblical times and up to the present, we might still ask, why? Here we touch the deepest reality of our religion. God respects the human nature that he created: we are both spiritual and material. Even God’s salvation of humanity from sin was by way of Incarnation: God became man in Jesus Christ. In the Christian religion we move from what is visible to what is invisible. Jesus tells us that if we see and know him, we also see and know the Father (see John 14:6-9). God comes to us though signs and symbols: the sacraments are tangible and visible—such as water, bread, wine, oil, imposition of hands—but through them we come into divine life. God comes to us in our very bodliness. As the Anglican scientist and theologian, John Polkinghorne recently wrote, we are not apprentice angels, but a kind of package deal of closely related mind and body. Whenever people forget this truth either by neglecting the spiritual or the material, they come into serious distortions of life itself.
Relics are one way in which God helps us in our bodily humanity to rise to spiritual realities. Through relics we can feel close to a holy person. We have a deeper awareness of their life and mission, of their presence in the Communion of Saints. Religion can never be purely intellectual; it must rather touch us at different levels of our being. Relics are clearly not as important as the sacraments. And like the sacraments, relics can be abused. We cannot stop at the holy relics of the saints, but we must reach further into God’s plans. Buddhism, the only other major religion apart from Catholic Christianity to have a major place for relics, insists too that we must go beyond the relic. One of its traditions is that the Buddha himself told his followers not to concentrate on his bodily remains but on his teaching.
Welcoming the relics of Thérèse
The correct veneration of relics looks beyond what is visible and material to God’s love at work in the saint, to the inspiration of the saint’s life and to God’s good pleasure in confirming the virtue of the saint by signs and cures. People will go to those churches that are to welcome the Theresian reliquary. But it must not be magical. True veneration of Thérèse will involve people turning to God and allowing his love to enter their lives through her intercession.
Ireland will be indeed privileged to receive the relics of Thérèse. But it must not be an isolated occasion of the day or evening in which her relics visit a town. It can only make sense if we focus on the message of Thérèse, so that her relics coming to Ireland will indeed be part of her own missionary desire to make God known and loved.
Preparation for this timely visit will involve a deepened understanding of the saint’s doctrine, in particular her teaching on God’s merciful love, on the Little Way of spiritual childhood which is a way of unending love. If the Irish Church is to avail fully of this grace, priests and teachers will have to explain the teaching of this Doctor of the Church whose doctrine is at once simple and profound. It will only be if we allow Thérèse to lead us to Jesus and to Mary that the visit of her relics will be of any value to ourselves. But if we can use the occasion to embrace her spiritual doctrine, then indeed we can expect great miracles of grace and healing as her sacred reliquary travels around our country. Relics in the end must point beyond themselves to God, and any veneration or honour given to them is honour to God who has crowned the saints with glory, and who wishes to bless us through our love for, and appreciation of, his special friends.