OUR CATHOLIC HERITAGE: Relics more than flesh, bone

Last Updated on October 14, 2017 by Editor

The Basilica of San Marco in Venice is a monument and tomb of St. Mark the Evangelist. In 828, Venetian sailors smuggled the remains out of Alexandria, Egypt, in crates labeled “pork” so that the Muslim guards would not inspect them. The Coptic Orthodox Church believes that the saint’s head still remains in a church in Alexandria.


During the summer, a relic of St. Anne was presented to the congregation after Mass.

I was moved by the devotion demonstrated by the congregants as they touched and/or kissed the small monstrance that contained a fragment of bone. I later found out that that particular sacred piece once was a possession of Monsignor Willenburg and was a gift to our parish. That started me thinking, a possibly dangerous thing, but in this case just an examination of faith.

As a traveler throughout Italy, I often have seen the remains of various saints and blessed individuals venerated in such monstrances, reliquaries and elaborate monuments. Some of the smaller ones I recall included petrified fingers, teeth, St. Clair’s hair, St. Francis’ sandals, fragments of wood and nails believed to from the cross of Jesus, thorns from Christ’s crown and pieces of the manger of Bethlehem.

We, at home, have even received via mail, small pieces of fabric from the Padre Pio Foundation.

Larger monumental relics I have seen include the home of the Virgin Mary within the Basilica of Loreto and the “Porziuncola,” an entire small church St. Francis restored, again in another basilica, Santa Maria degli Angeli in Assisi. The aforementioned fragment of the holy manger is in an elaborate crypt below the main altar of Rome’s Santa Maria degli Angeli. In the town of Otranto, the cathedral holds a chapel with the display of the bones of more than 800 martyrs of the Ottoman slaughter of 1480.

Entire churches have been constructed to house relics. In May, my wife and I were privileged to enter the Basilica of San Nicola (St. Nicholas) in the city of Bari just as an Orthodox celebration was taking place. There was a procession of clergy in elaborately embroidered vestments and the choir erupted in a beautiful hymn that reverberated from the massive stone walls.

We later learned that Pope Francis recently gave permission for the saint’s relics to travel to Russia for a visit, as Nicholas is one of the Russian Orthodox Church’s most venerated saints. Many local residents were not happy to see their saint leave their presence. The remains had rested in Bari since 1087, when Baresi sailors seized them from Myra, Turkey, which was then in the hands of non-Christians.

 The crypt of the Cathedral of Amalfi holds one of the most beautiful tombs in the country, that of the apostle Andrew. His remains were brought from Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade.

The Basilica of San Marco in Venice (11th century) is a monument and tomb of St. Mark the Evangelist. The story goes that in 828, Venetian sailors smuggled the remains out of Alexandria, Egypt, in crates labeled “pork” so that the Muslim guards would not inspect them. The Coptic Orthodox Church believes that the saint’s head still remains in a church in Alexandria.

And, of course, we can’t forget the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome, the most elaborate and grandiose of the dedicated structures containing the remains of several holy personages. The tomb of St. Peter, much enhanced over the centuries, is directly below the high altar of the basilica.

So, like any modern day person, trained to be skeptical of anything that doesn’t have scientific proof, I began to wonder how the church determines which relics are real.

Not all relics are the same.

A first-class relic is one associated with Christ’s earthly life or with the body of a saint. Therefore those fingers in a reliquary or St. Catherine’s head in Siena are concrete first-class relics. Many of the relics we have of Christ’s life were collected in the 4th century by St. Helen, the mother of the emperor Constantine. She traveled the Holy Land and had carte blanche to dig up whatever she could find.

One story tells how she had a Roman temple on Mount Calvary excavated and found remains of three crosses. Not knowing if one was the true cross, she had each touch a woman who was dying. The first two had no effect, but when the third touched the woman she had a miraculous recovery. That sealed its authenticity as far as the church was concerned. It makes sense then that some of these relics are in the church of Santa Croce in Rome, which once was on Helen’s private estate.

The Shroud of Turin never has been authenticated by the church. Even after extensive modern technological analysis it remains a curiosity mentioned in TV documentaries.

A second-class relic is something that the saint used. So when you go to Assisi and visit the room behind the Basilica you will see St.  Francis’ robe, sandals etc. When a saint is exhumed any remnants of clothing, rosaries or crosses found with him/her become relics of this order.

The tiny pieces of cloth that we receive in the mail are at best third-class relics. They might have touched a first- or second-class relic. The church forbids the sale of relics, so your subsequent donation to the gifting organization is not a sale. Earlier in history relic sales were a common practice and became one of the bones of contention of the Protestant Reformation. You can’t buy your way into heaven.

The church dictates that relics must be in sealed containers to be publicly venerated. That is why our St. Anne relic is in a monstrance and why the 3rd century blood of San Gennaro of Naples is kept in sealed ampules. That relic is first class, having been credited with many miracles besides the fact that the crystalized blood turns liquid most Septembers during his feast. It did not liquefy in 1939, and World War II broke out. It did not liquefy last September and Italy has been plagued by heat, brush fires and inability to cope with the rising tide of refugees arriving on her shores.

It might be coincidence, but as Monsignor Vincenzo De Gregorio, the abbot of the chapel of San Gennaro, said, “We must not think about disasters and calamities. We are men of faith and we must continue to pray.”

I guess real faith is in your heart and not in objects after all.