THE FEAST OF HOLY RELICS
by Dom Prosper Gueranger, OSB
Death prepares us for heaven
Had we angels' eyes, we should see the earth as a vast field sown with seed for the resurrection. The death of Abel opened the first furrow, and, ever since, the sowing has gone on unceasingly the wide world over. This land of labour and of suffering, what treasures it already holds laid up in its bosom! And what a harvest for heaven, when the Sun of justice, suddenly darting forth His rays, shall cause to spring up as suddenly from the soil the elect ears ripe for glory! No wonder that the Church herself blesses and superintends the laying of the precious grain in the earth.
The Glory of the Saints
But the Church is not content to be always sowing. Sometimes, as though impatient of delay, she raises from the ground the chosen seed she had sown therein. Her infallible discernment preserves her from error; and, disengaging from the soil the immortal germ, she forestalls the glory of the future. She encloses the treasure in gold or precious stuffs, carries it in triumph, invites the multitudes to come and reverence it; or she raises new temples to the name of the blessed ones, and assigns him the highest honour of reposing under the altar, whereon she offers to God the tremendous Sacrifice.
'Let your charity understand,' explains St. Augustine (Discorso CCCXVIII su santo Stefano, V): 'it is not to Stephen we raise an altar in this place; but of Stephen's relics we make an altar to God. God loves these altars; and if you ask the reason: "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints" (Psalm 115: 15). In obedience to God the invisible soul has quitted its visible dwelling. But God preserves this dwelling; He is glorified by the honour we pay to this lifeless flesh; and, clothing it with the might of His divinity, He gives it the power of working miracles' (Discorso CCLXXV su san Vincenzo, martire, II). Hence the origin of pilgrimages to the shrines of the saints.
'Christian people,' says St. Gregory of Nyssa, 'wherefore are you assembled here? A tomb has no attractions; nay, the sight of its contents inspires horror. Yet, see what eagerness to approach this sepulchre! So great an object of desire is it, that a little piece of dust from around it is esteemed a gift of great price. As to beholding the remains it conceals, that is a rare favour and a enviable one, as those can testify who enjoy the privilege: they embrace the holy body as though it were yet alive, they press their lips and their eyes upon it, shedding tears of love and devotion. What emperor ever received such honor? (Su san Teodoro Martire).
'Emperors!' rejoins St. John Chrysostom; 'as the porters at their gates, such have they become with regard to poor fishermen. The son of the great Constantine deemed he could not pay a higher honour to his father, than to procure him a place of sepulture in the porch of the fisherman of Galilee.' (Comm. della Seconda ai Cor. Om. XXVI). And again, concluding his commentary on St. Paul's admirable Epistle to the Romans, the golden-mouthed Doctor exclaims: 'And now, who will grant me to prostrate myself at Paul's sepulchre, to contemplate the ashes of that body which, suffering for us, filled up what was wanting in the sufferings of Christ? The dust of that mouth which spoke boldly before kings, and, showing what Paul was, revealed the Lord of Paul? The dust of that heart, truly the heart of the world, more lofty than the heavens, more vast than the universe, as much the heart of Christ as of Paul, and wherein might be read the book of grace graven by the Holy Spirit? Oh! that I might see the remains of the hands which wrote those Epistles; of those eyes which were struck with blindness and recovered their sight for our salvation; of the feet which traversed the whole earth! Yes: I would fain contemplate the tomb where repose these instruments of justice and of light, these members of Christ, this temple of the Holy Ghost. O venerable body, which, together with that of Peter, protects Rome more securely than all ramparts!' (Omelia XXXII)
Church’s teaching on relics
The Council of Trent on relics: "Veneration ought to be shown by the faithful to the bodies of the martyrs and other saints, who live with Jesus Christ. For they were His living members and the temples of the Holy Ghost; He will raise them up again to eternal life and glory; and through them God grants many blessings to mankind."
"Considering the unequal distribution of relics throughout the world, Rome has not fixed one universal feast for the essentially local cultus of these precious remains. She leaves the particular churches free to consult their own convenience (Concilio di Nicea II, c. VII), reserving it to herself to bless and sanction the choice of each." (Concilio di Trento, Sess. XXV)