Rome and Relics

For the next few weeks, I’m going to be doing Italian immersion in Assisi, and so I will be monitoring the blog rarely, if at all. In the meantime, I wanted to talk about one of the really striking parts about being a Catholic in Rome: there are relics everywhere.

This allows for something amazing spiritually. As one of the second-year men explained to us on the first day, you can frequently celebrate a Saint’s feast day here by visiting them, since the churches of Rome are home to innumerable relics of the Saints. That afternoon, I visited the Basilica di San Giovanni Battista dei Fiorentini (Basilica of St. John of the Florentines), and saw the foot of St. Mary Magdalene… the first foot that entered the Empty Tomb on Easter morning:

The foot of St. Mary Magdalene, encased in a reliquary.

Since then, I’ve seen some truly amazing relics, like the skulls of both St. Peter and St. Paul, and the tomb containing the body of St. Paul.

The accompanying sign, explaining her foot’s importance.

So what’s the deal with relics? For many Christians, they seem idolatrous, or at least superstitious, not to mention a bit macabre. And to be certain, it’s possible to treat relics in an idolatrous or superstitious manner. But in my experience, that’s not how most people use them. And in striking contrast to the modern queasiness that some (particularly Protestants) have about relics, the New Testament repeatedly presents the use of relics in a positive light.

Let’s consider three examples. First, objects that touched St. Paul (Acts 19:11-12):

God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.

People are bringing objects, touching St. Paul with them, and then bringing those objects to the sick to cure them. And Scripture doesn’t condemn this idolatrous or superstitious, but says that it’s one of the ways that God worked extraordinary miracles through Paul.

Second, consider St. Peter’s shadow (Acts 5:12-16):

The apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. 

As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by impure spirits, and all of them were healed.

This passage is rich in significance: for example, it matters that, of all of the miracle-working Apostles, Scripture tells us that St. Peter was sought out. But for our present purposes, we again see people interacting with Peter as a living relic. These people aren’t hoping to persuade Peter to perform a miracle: they believe that his mere shadow will be enough. And they’re right: all of them are healed. Scripture describes this as on one of the ways that the Apostles performed their signs and wonders. So once again, we don’t see relics as some sort of threat to God, but as a way that He manifests His power.

Finally, consider the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment (Mark 5:25-34):

And there was a woman who had had a flow of blood for twelve years, and who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse. She had heard the reports about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. For she said, “If I touch even his garments, I shall be made well.” And immediately the hemorrhage ceased; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone forth from him, immediately turned about in the crowd, and said, “Who touched my garments?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing around you, and yet you say, ‘Who touched me?’” And he looked around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had been done to her, came in fear and trembling and fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.

This woman believed that if she so much as touched Jesus’ garments. And she is. Christ doesn’t rebuke her for superstition, either. He doesn’t say, for example, “If you wanted to be healed, you should have spoken to Me.” Instead, He praises her for her faith.

And so, we can rest assured that He will praise the faith of the countless pilgrims who turn to relics in seeking intercession and healings. We believe that the same God who raised a dead man back to life when his corpse touched the bones of Elijah (2 Kings 13:21) will work wonders for those who seek recourse to the bones of Saints Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene. Far from being superstition, this is what the Christian faith looks like, all gritty and incarnational.

4 Comments

  1. Hi Joe, there are extra passages that can be added to the body of knowledge (if you want):

    The Israelites took Joseph’s bones when they left Egypt (Exodus 13:19).

    Elisha picked up the mantle of Elijah after he was assumed into Heaven; he then used the mantle to strike the water to make it part (2 Kings 2:11-14).

    Elisha’s bones brought someone to life (2 Kings 13:20-21).

    Raphael prepared Tobit to use the heart and liver of the fish to exorcise the demon and to restore his father’s site (Tobit 6:1-9). The demon was exorcised and Raphael bound it (Tobit 8:1-9). Tobit’s father’s site was restored (Tobit 11:1-8).

    Do not forget that the fish in Tobit is a prophetic symbol of Jesus Christ. Iesous CHrisos THeos Yios Soter (ICHTHYS). Jesus Christ, God, Son and Saviour.

    Lastly, the souls of the Saints under the altar (Revelation 6:9). This is why relics are placed under the altars of Catholic Churches around the world.

    God bless you and all seminarians around the world. Amen.

  2. …and if we want to add the witness for Second Century Christianity…

    “[After his execution and burning], we collected Polycarp’s bones, being more precious than the most exquisite jewels and more purified than gold, we interred them in a fitting place. There the Lord will permit us, as far as possible, to assemble in rapturous joy and celebrate his martyrdom – his birthday – both in order to commemorate the heroes that have gone before, and to train the heroes yet to come…” – Martyrdom of Polycarp (c. AD 155)

  3. Joe, I’m still directing people to your older posts, which serve as a superb introduction to apologetics for beginners. You had some posts from back in 2009 &2011 which focused on analyzing and defending celibacy in the Priesthood. These posts have a similar content to a current post from last week(7/19/2014) by Sandro Magister in his excellent blog at: http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/?eng=y …….which is titled “Francis Speaks, Scalfari Transcribes, Brandmüller Shreds”. It has this description: “As a Church historian, the German cardinal refutes the notion according to which clerical celibacy was an invention of the 10th century. No, he objects: its origin is with Jesus and the apostles. And he explains why”

    This new article is a powerful supplement for any of your readers who want more information on this highly important topic of priestly celibacy, and is supplemental to the excellent content you provided in your previous posts on the same subject.

    …I’m just giving a ‘heads up’ to any who might be interested in this new info.

  4. One of my favorite sites in Rome to visit is the Mamertine Prison. It is thought the both SS. Peter and Paul were held in this prison in the Foro Romano area. Some believe Paul was writing 2 Timothy from this location. One can stand in this dank prison and imagine what it might have been like for the saints to have been held there, along with many other Christian martyrs. There is a rock on the wall, that one can touch, where it is said Peter’s head was hit against it.

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