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There Are Different Kinds of Relics

    Relics and Advertising

    Q: 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 Church—when 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 manager.

    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 stated—without specifying amounts—that 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."

    Jesus and the Canaanite Woman

    Q: Can you explain the passage in Matthew 15:26? Is Christ speaking harshly to the Canaanite woman? If so, why? It seems contrary to our ideas of the gentle and kind Jesus.

    A: I'm sure that nearly every reader finds difficulty with the passage concerning the Canaanite woman and her plea for help. Commentators struggle with trying to explain the reactions and words of Jesus.

    Alexander Jones may do as good a job as any in The Gospel According to St. Matthew. He reminds us, at least implicitly, that tones and inflections do not come off on paper.

    Jones suggests the words of Jesus are not as harsh as they read. Whatever Jesus says, the Canaanite woman is not put off. She seems to accept his response as an invitation to persist and try to top his remark.

    Jones also asserts the Greek for dogs might well be translated as "pets" or "little dogs" (puppies). Thus Jesus is telling her the children of the family (Jews) come before the pets!

    And all this must be seen in the context of the hereditary enmity of Jews and Canaanites.

    Jones sees this as a kind of small parable or allegory. Jesus insists that the priority of his mission is to the Jews. Yet Jesus responds to faith wherever he finds it. And in the Canaanite woman he finds great faith.

    Thus, Matthew conveys a message for all Christians and disciples.

    Symbols on the Dollar Bill

    Q: What do the pyramid and eye on the back of our $1 bill mean? Someone told me it was designed by Ben Franklin. Wasn't he a Deist?

    A: The symbols to which you refer are the reverse side of the Great Seal of the United States: the triangle and eye atop an unfinished pyramid with the words Annuit Coeptis above them and the date 1776 in Roman numerals below with the words Novus Ordo Seclorum. We are more accustomed to seeing the front side of the seal with the American eagle clutching 13 arrows in its talons.

    The Great Seal was first used on the back of the $1 Federal Reserve note in 1935.

    The Great Seal itself, however, has a long history. Benjamin Franklin served on the first committee appointed to design a seal. The committee could not agree and two other committees followed. The task was finally turned over to Charles Thomson, the secretary of Congress, and his design was slightly revised by William Barton.

    The Department of State, keeper of the seal, says the pyramid symbolizes strength and durability. The 13 layers of stone represent the original states. The fact that the pyramid is unfinished means the United States is always growing, building and improving. The pyramid is also a Freemason emblem.

    In Christian symbols a triangle represents the divine Trinity and an eye the all-seeing eye of God. It suggests the importance of divine guidance. Annuit Coeptis can be translated "He (God) has favored our undertakings" and Novus Ordo Seclorum, "A new order of the ages," meaning the new American era.

    There are at least elements of Deism in Franklin's writings.

    The Wise Man welcomes your questions. If you have a question, please submit it here. Include your street address for personal replies enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, please. Some answer material must be mailed since it is not available in digital form. You can still send questions to: Wise Man, 28 W. Liberty Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202.

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