Solemnity of All Saints: Relics and Their Mission
Oct 20, 2020
On November 1st we celebrate the Solemnity of All Saints. This holy day of obligation is a time to honor all those canonized by the Church and those who are in heaven who have not been canonized. We are all called to become holy and to be saints. On this day we should take time to reflect on what this means for us and how our choices are leading us toward or away from God.
Many parishes and pilgrimage sites honor Saints this day by displaying Saints’ relics for veneration. Throughout the history of the Catholic Church, the veneration of relics has been a common form of piety. A relic is a sacred material item that exists after a Saint or martyr has died, which provides a real and tangible connection to that Saint or martyr. There are three types of relics: the physical remains of a Saint or martyr, something the Saint owned or used, and any item a Saint or Saint’s relic has touched.
A first-class relic refers to the physical remains or ashes of a Saint or martyr. This could include bones (even a small piece), flesh, ashes from the burned remains of a saint or martyr, or parts/the whole of the saint’s/martyr’s body. A second-class relic refers to something that the saint owned or used. For example, this could include clothing, the weapon(s) of martyrdom (for example, the lance that pierced Christ’s side), a rosary, or a Bible. A third-class relic is any item that a saint has touched, or that has been touched to another first, second, or third-class relic. Holy relics are also items which have been in contact with or have a physical connection to Christ (such as the Shroud of Turin, Veronica’s Veil, a piece of the Crown of Thorns, or a piece of the crib of Christ).
Relics do not possess magical powers. Rather, relics are venerated because they connect us with human beings who lived heroic lives of virtue or who died for the faith, and who are known by the infallible declaration of the Church to be in heaven in the Communion of Saints. The Saints are so closely knit to Christ: Christ lives within them, including within their relics. They are temples of the Holy Spirit in a mystical and real way and are models and intercessors. St. Augustine stated that miracles done by veneration of the saints and martyrs are done in answer to the saints’/martyrs’ prayers to God, not through their direct activity. It should be emphasized that as Catholics, we do not worship relics, saints, and martyrs – our worship is reserved for God alone. Saints and martyrs have an intermediary role, such as friends who we ask to pray for us, “gate-keepers, servants or counselors of an earthly king, to whom people recur when they want to submit a request to the king” (Gerrit J. Reinink). In his letter to Riparius, St. Jerome (d. 420 AD) states that, “We do not worship, we do not adore, for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than the Creator, but we venerate the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore him whose martyrs they are.” We honor the life of the saint or martyr and strive to emulate their holiness.
A Saint’s bodily relic is an actual presence of the person of the Saint. As mentioned above, during the lifetime of the Saint both their spirit and body are joined to Christ via the Holy Spirit, and this joining is permanent. Since a spirit cannot be divided, the Saint, and Christ knitted to the Saint, is fully linked to the material of the relic. When we venerate a Saint’s relic we are venerating the Saint who is actually fully present in that time and place, right in front of us! Thus, when a Saint’s bodily relics are divided and shared in places throughout the world, the Saint is actually present in many places at the same time. Divine grace permeates Saints’ relics like a burning coal, making holy everything the relics come into contact with. In this way, Saints’ relics are able to help sanctify the world. The Saints’ mission continues through their relics.
Look in the mirror and realize that you, primarily in your heart, are knitted to Christ with every choice to love. We are on a pilgrimage to heaven – to gain entrance we must become saints. On All Saints’ Day let us remember our call to holiness and honor those saints who have, through their love of Christ, answered that call.
Jennifer Lozy-Lester is a mother of six children and wife to her beloved husband of 26 years. She works for the government and earned a Master’s Degree in Industrial and Labor Relations from Cornell University. Jennifer graduated from St. Bernard’s in May 2019 with a Master’s in Theological Studies. Her Master’s thesis was “Deification and Relics: Compenetrated Theologies.” Jennifer is a parishioner at Our Mother of Sorrows in Greece, NY, which features over twenty first-class relics in an Oratory dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary.