I had the opportunity last Saturday to attend the pilgrimage of the heart of St. Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney, patron saint of priests, to St. John of Nepomuk Catholic Church in Yukon, Oklahoma. This occasion was momentous in itself, but also gave me an opportunity to delve into the question: Why relics?
St. Jean Vianney
The two-day stop in Yukon was part of a nationwide pilgrimage tour of the saint’s heart. The Shrine of St. Jean Vianney in Ars, France, where he was a parish priest, entrusted the relic to the Knights of Columbus for the pilgrimage. Research in advance of the pilgrimage led me to immediately admire this humble, energetic and devoted servant of God.
Vianney was born in 1786, and during the French Revolution witnessed the persecution and widespread murder of Catholic clergy. After being ordained a priest in 1815, Vianney worked to re-establish the Catholic faith in post-revolution France.
Known as a champion of the poor, Vianney would hear Confession for up to 16 hours a day during his time as the parish priest of Ars, France, according to the website franciscanmedia.org.
Vianney died in 1859 and was proclaimed venerable by Pope Pius IX in 1873, was beatified by Pope Pius X in 1905 and was canonized in 1925. His heart has remained intact, or “incorrupt” in ecclesiastical terms, in the 160 years since his death, and now is venerated as a relic of the Catholic Church.
As an Episcopalian of the Anglo-Catholic bent, I was drawn to the opportunity to see St. Vianney’s heart, to venerate him and his relic, and to have a third-class relic (anything that has touched a first-class relic, a piece of saint, or the reliquary in which it’s kept) made of my rosary and crucifix. But it’s easy to forget that what we cherish in our own traditions may seem foreign, strange, even gruesome or profane to other faiths and other traditions within the Body of Christ.
I was reminded of this when a co-worker asked why we venerate saints and their relics. Why do we keep little bits of long-dead people and their belongings in ornate boxes to be proudly displayed for pilgrims, and to be paraded around on solemn occasions? Do we worship them? To our Protestant sisters and brothers this all looks very foreign, macabre, even idolatrous.
So, in the spirit of greater understanding between different traditions, I set out to better understand for myself: Why relics? And, what is veneration? With these questions in mind, I set out last Saturday for St. John of Nepomuk in Yukon, about a 90-minute drive from my home in Enid.
Veneration: What it is not
Veneration is not worship. This is a common (and understandable) misunderstanding I encounter a lot from my Protestant friends, even from more “low church” Episcopalians (the “are Episcopalians Protestant?” question is for another blog post — the answer is definitely yes, and definitely no).
Worship belongs to God alone, in Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Fr. Rex Arnold, priest at St. John of Nepomuk, did an excellent job of setting this straight from the get-go in his homily Saturday, for anyone who may be misled (Catholic, Protestant or otherwise). “We do not worship relics or saints,” Arnold said. “We do not adore them. We venerate.”
Arnold draws a crucial distinction. We (meaning, for my purposes here, Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and any others who practice veneration of saints) do not worship saints or relics (including the Blessed Virgin Mary — again, a topic for another post). I cannot stress this enough: Worship belongs solely to the Triune God. And, we do not adore saints and relics. Adoration, as an ecclesiastical term among liturgical churches, typically refers to our passionate love of Christ, especially His real presence in the elements of Holy Eucharist (as celebrated by Catholics, Orthodox, Anglo-Catholics and some Lutherans). So, again, veneration is NOT worship, and should never be treated as such. That would be idolatry.
I want to come back to the issue of what veneration IS, now that we’ve dispelled what it IS NOT (it’s not worship). But first: Why relics?
Fr. Arnold addressed this question in the terms many unaccustomed to relics and veneration may use: “If all things are made new in Christ, why are we here to venerate the heart of a dead Frenchman, who lived at the time of Napoleon?” The answer to that question, for many of us, often boils down to some slightly-more-eloquent version of “We do it because we’ve always done it — TRADITION!!” But, Fr. Arnold did an excellent job in his homily of highlighting the basis for relics in Scripture and the early history of the church.
Elisha and Elijah’s mantle
In 2 Kings 2, Elijah ascends to heaven, leaving Elisha to carry on his legacy as God’s prophet. Scripture tells us:
Elisha then picked up Elijah’s cloak that had fallen from him and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. 14 He took the cloak that had fallen from Elijah and struck the water with it. “Where now is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” he asked. When he struck the water, it divided to the right and to the left, and he crossed over. 2 Kings 2:13-14
Elisha takes up Elijah’s mantle — both in the figurative, or spiritual, sense, and in the literal, physical sense of Elijah’s cloak. The spiritual and physical are one. The cloak of Elijah is not performing miracles. God is — through his servant Elisha, and through the physical world of His creation, in this case Elisha, the cloak and the waters. The cloak of Elijah is not an active agent in itself — but by its connection to Elijah it is important, and Elisha placed importance in it.
Several chapters later, in 2 Kings 13, Elisha dies and is buried. And, in his grave, we find one of the strongest Scriptural foundations for relics of the saints:
Now Moabite raiders used to enter the country every spring. 21 Once while some Israelites were burying a man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders; so they threw the man’s body into Elisha’s tomb. When the body touched Elisha’s bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet. 2 Kings 13:20-21
Elisha’s bones in and of themselves were bones — nothing more. But, for reasons known but to God, He chose to work through these bits of bone, through these small fragments of His creation to enact His will. It was not the bones acting. It was God. But, the bones remain a part of God’s creation, and are important as something used by God, as He uses His saints and us all, to build up the Kingdom.
The Scriptural basis for God working through the connection between physical items and spiritual grace is shown in the Gospel of Luke, when a bleeding woman is cured by touching Jesus’ cloak:
And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years,[a] but no one could heal her. 44 She came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak, and immediately her bleeding stopped. 45 “Who touched me?” Jesus asked. When they all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the people are crowding and pressing against you.” 46 But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me.” 47 Then the woman, seeing that she could not go unnoticed, came trembling and fell at his feet. In the presence of all the people, she told why she had touched him and how she had been instantly healed.48 Then he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.” Luke 8:43-48
I don’t know anyone who would argue it was the cloak that cured the woman. Christ cured her, through her faith. And in her faith, it was incredibly important for her to draw close to Christ, if even only to touch the hem of his cloak. Her faith, so focused on Christ, made touching that fragment of cloth sufficient to heal her. The cloth of Jesus’ cloak was merely a conduit, a point of focus, for her faith — but an important conduit, nonetheless.
Relics of St. Paul
In Acts of the Apostles, we’re told people were cured by touching items that had been used by St. Paul (in modern terms, second-class relics).
God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, 12 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. Acts 19:11-12
It was not the bits of cloth causing the effect here. Nor was it Paul. God acted, using His servant Paul and these bits of cloth as conduits for His grace.
St. Polycarp’s bones
In one of the earliest surviving accounts of non-canonical Christian history, early Church leaders recorded the episode of the martyrdom of St. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, in modern-day Turkey. After ordering food for his captors and peacefully, but passionately, praying for two hours, Polycarp was led without complaint to the stake. We’re told the flames miraculously refused to claim him, and he remained calmly praising God amid the inferno until his executioners finally had him speared.
The account of the AD 155 martyrdom reflects some Protestants’ concerns today over “relic worship,” and why that should not be a hindrance to veneration of saintly relics:
When the Enemy saw the wonder of his martyrdom, his blameless life and now his crowning with immortality, he did his utmost to stop us keeping any memorial of him or taking possession of his holy body. He inspired Nicetes, the father of Herod, along with the Jews to ask the governor not to hand over his body for burial. “They might turn from worshipping the crucified one,” he said, “only to start worshipping this one.” They did not realize that it is impossible for us to abandon Christ who suffered for the salvation of the world, or to worship any other….
Early Christians did not seek St. Polycarp’s bones to worship any other than Christ. His bones were important as reminders of his strength of faith, and as a physical bridge between the world as we have it and the Kingdom of God we’re called to serve. The account goes on to recount this purpose in creating the reliquary of Polycarp’s bones:
The centurion then, seeing the disturbance caused by the Jews, took the body and publicly burnt it. Later, we collected up his bones, more precious than jewels and better purified than gold, and put them in an appropriate place where, the Lord willing, we shall celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom each year with joy and rejoicing, both to remember those who have run their race and to prepare those yet to walk in their steps.
Polycarp’s bones were just bones. But, they also were something far greater than bone, because of the great focus of faith they inspired, and because of the way God was pleased to work through Polycarp — and his bones — in building up the early Church. We venerate him and other saints through their relics, along with hagiographies and icons, to remember and to prepare ourselves for better service to God.
Praying over bones OR “That’s gross”
In trying to describe the relic of St. Jean Vianney to one of my Protestant friends, this exchange was inevitable:
“So, they cut out his heart?”
“And it’s in a glass box?”
“Yes, it is … it’s a very nice box…”
“And they parade it around?”
“Well, yes, you see the saints…”
I didn’t get to the part about St. Vianney’s entire body being on display in a glass box in the Shrine of Ars.
Again, we can become so close to our traditions, especially those very dear to us, that we don’t recognize how out-of-the-norm (or even gross) they are to others. To those from other branches of the Body of Christ, even crucifixes can be macabre to an uncomfortable extent. But, you start displaying bits of bone, fingers, and yes, a heart, and things get “gross.” Even spiritual devotions like St. Therese of Lisieux’s devotion to Jesus’ blood from the cross as “divine dew,” and Thomas A Kempis’ advice that we rest in the wounds of Christ, can sound “gross” to the contemporary ear.
But, this has historically not been a hang-up for Christians. From the earliest days of the Church, life and death were co-mingled, and death was seen more as a blessed portal to unfettered presence with Christ than as the taboo, “icky” and fearsome role it plays in today’s society.
Early Christians practiced their faith at peril of death, and to escape capture held services in the catacombs, amid the bones of Christians and pagans alike. When the faithful were martyred, their bones (if they could be gotten) were placed among the worshipers, as a source of strength and remembrance. From that necessity led the practice, when Christians emerged from hiding, of placing these relics within the Church, often under the altar.
The faithful were (until recent decades in many cases, and for notable Church leaders, still in practice) buried beneath the floor of the sanctuary, to keep the physical remains of the faithful dead close to the living, who still had the rest of their course to run. The parish graveyard, immediately adjacent to the church, was a natural extension of this, and today many churches (including my home at St. Matthew’s) inter ashes in columbaria adjacent to the sanctuary.
When excavators began a floor repair in 2013 at Bath Abbey, in England, they discovered an estimated 6,000 bodies that had been crammed under the church floor. Some Carthusian monks slept in their own coffins. A Capuchin crypt beneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini on the Via Veneto in Rome, Italy, includes five chapels, covered in the skeletal remains of an estimated 4,000 Capuchin friars from the 16th to 19th centuries. And, perhaps the most extreme, the Sedlec Ossuary near Prague is decorated with elaborate sculptures and artwork, all crafted from the bones of an estimated 40,000 people whose remains were interred there.
To contemporary sensibilities these examples seem more like points of gruesome curiosity than sources of spiritual inspiration. But, we should remember it was only recently that our society began to build “sensible” and comfortable walls between life and death, and to hide from sight any mention or sign of the latter. Before, and in some cases still, death is not seen as gruesome, but as a natural and necessary waypoint on our spiritual journey. Life and death are one, and when we see ourselves this way, relics become not “gross” pieces of dead people being paraded about, but powerful and present reminders of our mortality, and of how God calls us and uses us with whatever time we have in our bodies.
With all my heart…
Fr. Arnold closed his homily with another powerful reminder for us all. Whatever is derived through veneration of the saints and preservation of relics, whether it’s miracles like healings or parting the waters of the Jordan, or equally miraculous stirring and strengthening of faith in tepid hearts, whatever grace we receive is from God. Relics are not magic. Cloth is cloth. Bone is bone. It is God, and our faith, that empowers any grace that flows through the saints and their relics.
As I sat quietly meditating and praying in the presence of St. Vianney’s heart, I knew I was in the presence of more than just a piece of flesh. The focused prayers of millions were there. St. Vianney was there. And in that presence, I couldn’t help but ask myself: How will I use my heart to glorify God, and to serve His children? Praying over St. Vianney’s heart, I prayed to use mine own better, and to better effect for God.
I pray my heart will grow in strength and conviction to live up to the words of the Prayer of St. John Vianney:
I love You, O my God, and my only desire is to love You until the last breath of my life.
I love You, O my infinitely lovable God, and I would rather die loving You, than live without loving You.
I love You, Lord and the only grace I ask is to love You eternally…
My God, if my tongue cannot say in every moment that I love You, I want my heart to repeat it to You as often as I draw breath. Amen.