In the following interview with CNA, Fr. Martins answers questions and dispels some common misunderstandings about the tradition of relics.
What is the spiritual significance of relics?
I think that St. Jerome put it best when he said: “We do not worship relics, we do not adore them, for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the creator. But we venerate the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore him whose martyrs they are.” (Ad Riparium, i, P.L., XXII, 907). We venerate relics only for the sake of worshiping God.
What is the proper way to keep relics? Are lay Catholics allowed to have first class relics in their homes?
Relics are very precious. They are not something that was alive at one time and is now dead. In the case of first class relics, we are talking about flesh that is awaiting the general resurrection, where the soul of a saint will be reunited with his physical remains.
As such, the way we treat relics is of the utmost importance. Ideally, relics should be kept in a Church or chapel where they can be made available for public veneration.
The highest honor the Church can give to a relic is to place it within an altar, where the Mass may be celebrated over it. This practice dates from the earliest centuries of the Church. In fact, the sepulchers of the martyrs were the most prized altars for the liturgy.
As an alternative to encasing them within altars, they may be installed within a devotional niche where people may venerate them. Such shrines are important as they afford people a deeper experience of intimacy with the saint.
The Church does not forbid the possession of relics by lay persons. They may even keep them in their homes. However, because of the many abuses that have been committed concerning relics, the Church will no longer issue relics to individuals – not even to clergy.
These abuses included failing to give them proper devotion (neglect), careless mistreatment of them, discarding them, and in some cases, even selling them. The abuses were not necessarily committed by the person to whom the Church had originally bequeathed the relics. But when such persons became deceased, and the relics were passed on by inheritance, they were often subject to great vulnerability. With the eclipse of the Christian culture in the western world, faith can no longer be taken for granted, even among the children of the most devout people.
Thus, to protect relics, the Church only issues them to Churches, chapels, and oratories.
How important is the authenticity of the relic? How does the Church go about determining authenticity of very old relics from the beginning of the Church?
The authenticity is critically important.
But for the ancient saints, determining identity is much easier than you might think. It was tradition to build a church over top of a saint’s grave. That is why St. Peter’s Basilica is where it is, or why St. Paul Outside the Walls is there. Both encompass the tomb for the saint, which is located directly beneath the altar.
Modern archaeology has only affirmed what the ancient tradition has believed.