The grotesque or the beautiful: how Catholics can think about saint relics

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Photo by Patrick Goodman

Europe is strewn with a miscellany of body parts. 

St. Catherine of Sienna’s head lies in Sienna; her body rests in Rome. St. Theresa of Avila’s fingers lie almost 400 miles apart. St. Anthony’s tongue is exposed for prayers, its taste buds still distinct. 

In Rome, I was among the students-turned-pilgrims who flocked to the reliquaries to pray as much as to gawk. I found that praying in front of a shriveled finger, that once actually scribbled down the texts I read in prayer, was at the same time spiritually edifying and almost nightmarish. 

Yet, for all of the grimaces with which Catholic saint’s relics are met, we all have probably venerated secular relics before we even heard about Catholic ones. You would not have to tell a fifth grade girl that a poster signed by Taylor Swift is something holy. A restaurant in Nashville where Elvis ate some baked beans is sacred ground. You can bet that if they had his fork, it  would be encased for Elvis pilgrims to come and venerate. 

When the Catholic tradition of relics is placed within this context, it becomes a little less grotesque. If we understand humans as necessarily communicating through bodily means, relics begin to make even more sense. 

Perhaps what most dissuades us about Catholic relics is their history. Even for those who grew up with an appreciation of relics, they might dismiss the history of relics, which is an often messy tale of feuding cities, bodies ripped apart and sham skeletons. Despite this, I think that there are profound truths to be discovered about relics even in Church history.

For the early Church, the transmission of the faith to the next generation was something precarious. While we have a deeply codified system of passing on the deposit of faith, as well as a militant force of twelve-passenger Catholic vans that bears the next generation of believers, all was not so assured in the early Church. We have to imagine that the early Church leaned upon the Holy Spirit as the guardian of its tradition, as it withstood factions within and persecutions without. In that context, we can imagine the power of a physical manifestation of the faith they received. 

To sprawl “HE IS HERE” on the tomb of St. Peter, which I saw buried deep under the Vatican, is a powerful testament to the revelation the early Church was passing on. While this does not excuse the violence or fraud associated with relics in the past, it certainly does situate the value of relics in the early Church. 

Relics also reveal something of the nature of God. In relics, the sacred is vulnerable to idolatry. Yet the persistence of the tradition of relics shows that God is determined to take that risk for us. 

The Old Testament could not condemn idolatry more clearly. It seems counterintuitive, then, that God would give the Israelites the ark of the covenant, complete with two golden angels atop. God took the risk of potential idolatry because, in His wisdom, He knew that the Isrealites’ faith could be strengthened by a physical manifestation of His power. It wasn’t a lowball accommodation for their weakness as humans; rather, it was a statement of the love and humility of the Divine. 

God prefers the risk of being abused to not being with us at all. Christ Himself embodies this point.

The same holds true for the Catholic practice of relics. While the practice certainly can be taken to extremes and can be abused, the Church is willing to take that risk because it knows how powerful relics are for our faith. 

Venerating a relic requires profound humility on our part, too. As young Catholics who identify with our faith very deeply, we might be a little self-conscious to find ourselves thinking, “Woah, Christ was real,” while praying in front of the nails that pierced his hands. Standing amazed in front of a relic, our overwhelming response might be embarrassment when we become so awe-struck that the person that the relic belonged to actually existed. 

Yet, that instinctive, humbling awe is the proper response to relics. They remind us not to overestimate our faith and that we are body-soul creatures who receive our faith in tangible sacraments. If it could still speak, the tongue of St. Anthony might ask us to pray to receive our faith, instead of thinking that we already have it.

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