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Vatican Issues New Rules Resting in Peace

Restoring Respect for Relics

The recent sale of objects from the estate of the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis drew much attention. Since she was a celebrated figure, her personal items had increased in value and popularity with her fans after her death. Likewise, we cherish articles associated with our own departed loved ones: a cast-iron skillet, a once-fashionable sweater, a dog-eared prayer book. Even if the monetary value is low, we hold such objects in high esteem.

After we have buried a beloved member of our family, we would be horrified if someone wanted to exhume the grave, chip away at the bones of the deceased and send these body fragments all over the world. We would consider this a blatant lack of respect for the dead.

But that's what we've been doing for many centuries to the bones of our saints, the celebrated loved ones of our Church. We need to be more respectful of their remains or relics and also to be more understanding when Native Americans and others protest violations to their ancestral burial grounds. There was a time in history when relics of saints were so prized they were sold and even stolen. Because of this competition, tombs of saints were often ransacked, the remains were dismembered and divided among many shrines. That is why past and present canon law forbids the sale of relics and regulates their use.

Vatican Issues New Rules

In an effort to restore order, dignity and meaning to the practice of distributing and venerating relics, the Vatican has issued new regulations, reports Catholic News Service. Relics of saints "were being passed around like candy," says Msgr. Piero Marini, the papal master of liturgical ceremonies.

Bodily remains are taken from a sainthood candidate's grave during the exhumation that is required before beatification, if it can be done without unduly mutilating the body. Often some of these relics are presented to the pope during beatification and canonization, then placed in custody of the Apostolic Sacristy. Many relics are also held by the diocese or religious order promoting a candidate's cause.

The new rules govern relics stored in the Vatican and the Diocese of Rome but will also serve as a model for dispensing those held by other dioceses and religious orders. The norms allow the distribution of bones or flesh of saints and martyrs, known as first-class relics, "only for public veneration in a church, oratory or chapel." None "will be given to individual faithful for private veneration."

This is not a move away from the veneration of relics. Treated reverently, they can still inspire us to imitate the virtues of our beloved saints. First-class relics will still be exposed in churches, as are St. Anthony's tongue, jaw and vocal cords in the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua (see "I've Found a Lot to Love in St. Anthony" in this online issue).

The new restrictions will, however, affect private ownership and the size of first-class relics that are distributed. For example, when relics are placed under church altars, they should be big enough to be recognizable as parts of a human body. "Because the law now requires large relics, it means gradually the practice" of a martyr's remains being part of an altar will disappear, says Jesuit Father Peter Gumpel, a former official at the Congregation for Sainthood Causes. There will be no more chipping away at old bones, sending a fragment to a church in one country, a sliver to an individual in another.

The rite of dedication of an altar says, "All the dignity of the altar rests on its being the Lord's table." Thus, the focus should be on Jesus, rather than martyrs.

During the early Church St. Jerome made it clear where the emphasis belonged: Relics of martyrs should not be worshiped, but they should be venerated "in order the better to adore Him whose martyrs they are," writes Joan Carroll Cruz in Relics. She explains the three classes of relics: First-class relics are parts of the bodies of saints and the instruments of Christ's passion. Second-class relics include items of clothing and objects used by a saint, and instruments of torture used on a martyr. Third-class relics are objects or cloths touched to either first- or second-class relics. Honoring saints through their relics should not be confused with superstitious beliefs.

Resting in Peace

The new norms can help us realize that we don't need to possess a minute first-class relic of a favorite saint to foster a particular devotion. The "practice of digging up bodies, cutting them up and shipping the pieces all over the place" conflicts with traditional Judeo-Christian respect for the dead, says Jesuit Father Robert Taft, an expert in Eastern-rite liturgies.

Perhaps the Vatican's concern for the treatment of the relics of our sainted dead should lead us to greater respect for the feelings of people of other cultures and beliefs. It's easy to empathize when we see photos of grief-stricken people in Rwanda and Bosnia at mass graves or as they identify the remains of their loved ones who perished in recent years. But are we as outraged when a Native American burial site or Egyptian pyramid is excavated as we would be if the catacombs or the grave of one of our long-ago relatives was dug up and featured in a colorful National Geographic article?

Do we feel as much respect for the remains of Chief Big Foot and the other Sioux who were killed at Wounded Knee in 1890 as we do for those of Lt. Col. George Custer and the other soldiers who were killed at Little Bighorn in 1876? Chief Crazy Horse emerged victorious from Little Bighorn, only to be killed a year later and have his parents bury his heart and bones near Wounded Knee at a place known only to them. May all of these human remains rest in the peace that they deserve. --M.J.D.

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