As a non-Roman Catholic privileged to work for a prominent Catholic institution, I have
been fascinated by the complexities and the diversity of popular and official Catholic
piety and culture.
I have become sensitized to the question of how relics are and should be understood,
in connection with their presence under Church altars. I find it very difficult to find
someone who knows about the proper way for a parish congregation to honor a third-century
saint whose relics may lie in their church.
This concern about the legal and spiritual meaning of relics came to mind again when
I read the ad on the inside front cover of the April 1997 issue of St. Anthony Messenger.
There a familiar film personality refers twice to "sacred relics." The items in question
seem to be tiny chips of stone from an excavation in Bethlehem in 1963.
Is there a canonical basis for calling those chips of stone "sacred relics" just because
of the excavation from which they came? What is affirmed by the "documentation" which
the ad says was provided by the "Israel Museum"? What jurisdiction did that museum have
in 1963, when the country was under Jordanian administration? What is the significance
of the fact that the removal of the stones was authorized by the mayor of Jerusalem,
an Arab businessman?
The ad says, "These sacred relics have been in safekeeping for many years." I assume
that means that there is some provenance certification for where the stones were from
1963 until 1996. That does not make them "sacred relics" unless there is some canonical
status which that provenance proof protects.
I trust that you have a greater stake than I do to be concerned about authenticity in
such matters of popular piety. The concern stretches from issues of truth in advertising
to pastoral theology. It would interest me to know to what kind of screening your editors
subject the ads you run. Does someone check what portion of the proceeds on the sales
of this jewelry goes to help maintain the Cave of the Nativity?
A: First of all, let me say
a few words about relics in general. In Catholic usage the word relics has several
meanings. There are three different classes of relics. First-class relics are parts of
the body or bones of a saint. Second-class relics are objects that were used by or associated
with a saint (or somehow with the Lord). A third-class relic is a piece of cloth or something
that has been touched to a first- or second-class relic.
The rationale for relics is that they somehow put us spiritually in touch with the saint
or the Lord. They help us to reflect on the holiness and heroism of the holy ones. They
help us ponder their virtues and examples. They help us to make acts of faith and love.
Just as a lock of hair from an infant or the infant's bronzed shoes bring a mother close
to her absent child, so relics help us feel a certain intimacy with the saints. In a
way we might say Christians treasure relics in the way patriots treasure original copies
of the Declaration of Independence or the flag that inspired "The Star-Spangled Banner."
The use of, or association with, relics goes back to the early centuries of the Churchwhen
Christians celebrated the Eucharist in the catacombs on the tombs of martyrs. That is
the tradition behind placing relics under the altar in today's churches. They are links
with the past and saints of old, reminders we are part of a communion of saints.
At the time of the Crusades many questionable relics began to appear. Soldiers brought
back many objects from the Holy Land claiming they were used by Jesus or somehow associated
with him and Gospel events. Sometimes two or three copies of an item were claimed as
the same relic.
So it is that the Church began to regulate the use of relics. Canon law required the
authentication of relics if they were to be publicly venerated. They had to be sealed
in a receptacle and accompanied by a certificate of authentication, signed and sealed
by someone in the Congregation for Saints or, today, by the local bishop where the saint
lived. Without such authentication, relics are not to be used for public veneration.
The sale of relics is forbidden by law.
For more on the subject of relics, I refer you to Relics, by Joan Cruz (Our Sunday
Visitor, Huntington, IN, $10.95).
Now specifically related to the ad for the nativity stones, these are the facts and
responses that I could gather with the help of St. Anthony Messenger's advertising
The stones in the nativity cross advertised in this publication are not relics in the
ecclesiastical sense. I'm sure, though, many people would treasure the stones for their
association with the traditional site of the Lord's birth.
When our advertising manager is asked to print a new or questionable ad, she checks
out the advertiser with the Better Business Bureau. Sometimes she checks further with
the chancery office of the diocese where the advertiser is located. If she still considers
the ad questionable, she refers it to the editor. If Franciscan Father Norman Perry questions
the taste, claims, ethics, etc., of the ad, he solicits opinion from other editors or
the advice of the publisher or outside professionals.
After I showed your letter to the advertising manager, she engaged in further correspondence
with the advertiser, Nativity Stones. They insisted their use of the word relics conformed
to the dictionary meaning and its sacred character would be a matter of individual judgment.
Nativity Stones outlined how they authenticated the stones and provide jewelry buyers
with certificates of authenticity.
The advertiser also noted that the stones were never called blessed or Church-certified.
Finally the advertiser statedwithout specifying amountsthat Nativity Stones
could produce canceled checks written to the municipality of Bethlehem, the Greek Orthodox
society and the Greek Orthodox Church to verify that some of the proceeds go to the upkeep
of the Cave of the Nativity. Said the advertiser, "We have donated tens of thousands
of dollars and feel comfortable with our statement that some of the proceeds go back
to Bethlehem to help maintain the birth site."