2006 Mar/Ancient Tradition Honouring Relics

There are many saints who had the devotion of honouring relics of saints who had preceded them into the Church Triumphant. We read, for example, about Ss. Cyril and Methodius reverently taking the body of St. Clement to Rome, and laying it to rest under the altar of the Church that bears his glorious name. St. Oliver Plunkett loved the relics of Rome, and St. Edmund Campion was remarkable for the great fervour with which he made the traditional pilgrimages there.

Some would not wait for the martyr to die, as for example the four holy women who were collecting the drops of blood during the sufferings of St. Blaise, and were martyred before him for this pious act. There were also Christians who had access to the cell of St. Anastasius during the brief absence of the officer, who went away to receive some instructions from the king Chosroes. These Christians collected as relics whatever they could touch to his body, and made wax impressions of the chains, and kissed his feet. St. Anastasius found this a bit disconcerting, to say the least, and endeavoured to show his displeasure. That day the judge had 68 Christians strangled in front of St. Anastasius, who remained faithful, of course.


Regarding the martyrs as first born sons or elder brothers, it was the early generations of Catholics who set the tradition of honouring relics; we find that the tomb of a Martyr is the object of public veneration as far back as the 2nd century. Let’s see how they observed these customs, especially by decorations and anniversary celebrations. It should be no surprise that the veneration of relics does indeed strengthen a Catholic’s communion with the saints, and work toward making him a saint.

The First Monuments

Although these Christians lived in times of persecution, they created decorations that were lasting and beautiful. The Christians erected “Memoriae,” small monuments, over the most famous tombs. Chief among the symbols adorning the martyrs’ tombs was the laurel crown. The Graeco-Roman world would take it as a symbol of victory; the Christian sees in it a symbol of life over death. The early paintings in the catacombs of St. Callixtus and of Priscilla represent Christians assisting at Holy Mass. This last kind of decoration is significant because the Mass was the peak of the celebrations that took place at the sepulchres of the martyrs.

Such a commemoration was held on the anniversary of the martyrdom itself, and was therefore called a “Natalitia, “ a birthday celebration. We still use this term in the collect for a martyr-Bishop: “we venerate his festival” is “natalitia colimus”. The martyr is not dead, but has finished his terrestrial trial, through which he was born into the life of glory. “In the sight of the unwise they seemed to die: but they are at peace” (Wisdom iii, 2-3, chanted at the Offertory during the Mass of the Martyr). Perhaps on the vigil to the feast of St. Agnes, they sang these words from the responsory we pray at Matins for that feast: “At thirteen years of age, she lost death and found life, for she loved the author of life alone.”


Martyrdom and the Mass

The vigil was prior to the Mass, and resembled our Easter Vigil: Scripture readings, prayers, and hymns. There was also a reading from an account of the martyr’s “passio,” a narrative of the martyrdom. Some customs were common to pagan funerals, such as the scattering of flowers and the pouring of libations and perfumes. For the sake of the latter, the cover of some tombs had holes, or even a metal tube, as can be seen in the Basilica Apostolorum on the via Appia. This custom met with disapproval from Church authorities, but we can gather from it how much the early Christians desired to communicate with the saints. Also at the grave, they held the funeral banquet. The sepulchre of the martyr marked the place for all these prayers and celebrations. For the celebration of Mass itself, however, the tomb was not just the place, it was the very altar; and this is perhaps the highest honour they receive. St. Cyprian’s tomb bears the title Mensa Cypriani, mensa being the top part of an altar. The Spanish poet Prudentius, a contemporary of St. Jerome, wrote a hymn in praise of St. Hippolytus alluding to this privilege: “… their tomb is used also as an altar for the celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice.” Apparently some priests thought it would be good to extend this privilege to non-martyrs, because Pope Felix I (3rd century) restricted the practice to the graves of martyrs.

Martyrdom and the Altar

St. Augustine said that the altar was a worthy place of rest for the relics of the martyr because of a certain fellowship he acquired with the sacrifice of Our Lord. The prophet Zachary calls the sacrifice of the New Law, His good and beautiful thing, “the corn of the elect and wine springing forth virgins” (Zach ix, 17). One could call it the Precious Blood bringing forth martyrs, for it was his familiarity and intimacy with this sacrifice of Calvary that produced in the martyr his heroism and strength. Uniting himself to the same sacrifice, and living out and sustaining his offering even to death, he merited to receive an altar for a tomb. Some martyrs, we know, were catechumens, and didn’t actually assist at Holy Mass. But their martyrdom manifested a real desire to share in Our Lord’s sacrifice, an affection for, and a conformity to, His Passion. The Holy Ghost produces in the martyr an act of charity resembling the sacrifice of Calvary, making him a testimony to the truth, sealed by blood.

When the age of persecutions came to an end, the decorations of the Memoriae took on an increased magnificence. In fact, they were transformed into splendid churches, such as the basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls and the church of St Sebastian. The basilicas had to be erected over the graves, for custom and law prohibited the removal of corpses. Constantine literally moved a mountain to build the basilica of St. Peter. In many cities of the Empire, basilicas began to appear around the outskirts, for that is where the ancient cemeteries lay. Like fortresses they surrounded such cities, all around the boundaries. “By the grace of God our city is fortified by the precious remains of the saints,” said St. John Chrysostom, referring to Antioch, the city of his birth and ordination.


Transferal of Relics

In the 7th century, however, when the liturgical cult to the martyrs had been dwindling, the solution to its restoration was precisely to bring the relics of many saints together. Gregory III in this way brought the tombs of many martyrs under the one roof of his oratory, and thus made local privileges of distant tombs accessible to all attending Mass at the Vatican Basilica.

Then it was only a matter of time before they would be moved to many other locations. In the 8th and 9th centuries, many relics became neglected because the locations were unsafe. It became necessary to transfer relics into the cities. Soon after, the relics of many martyrs came to be divided and distributed to altars all around the world. Today, for a licit consecration of a fixed altar or of an altar stone, there must be relics of at least two martyrs placed in the sepulchre of the altar or of the altar stone. (Code of Canon Law, 1239/2.)


Relics Today


We do not keep all of these customs of the early Church today, but we ought to be cognizant of the same realities; there’s a rich vision of faith that produced this cult of the martyrs. The first generations of Christians saw that the Church Militant is in communion with the Church Triumphant. We in the Church Militant recognise by the grace of faith, that we are strangers in this world, displaced persons, seeking greater union with God for ourselves, desiring this union for others, awaiting the resurrection, united by the sacraments in His blood with others who keep Christ, and no other, first and foremost. In all of this we are following Our Lord as Head of the Church through His passion and death and resurrection. At the end of time there will be only a Church Triumphant. The early Christians could see the Church as a continuation of the Incarnation; Jesus Christ was present in these saints, continuing His work of sanctifying and teaching and offering Himself. This whole vision was confirmed in every act of martyrdom.

In this age of martyrs, the faithful made their acquaintance already here on earth. They knew them by sight and by hearing; they had been in the same towns; they heard them preach; they saw them give their final witness. After the triumph of the martyr, the relations between the martyr and his fellow Catholics were not cut, but they were changed, and the relic helped sustain these relations.

The faithful who remained in the Church militant recognized in the relic something tangible that served as a locus [point of reference] of such invisible realities as truth, grace, and future glory, realities that appeared in Christ when He walked the earth. Christ, however, took His physical body to heaven; the martyr has left us a relic of Christ’s Mystical Body.

Relevance of Relics


Not pure spirits, we human beings need to have things we can see and touch, in order to learn, to remember, and to communicate. The human sentiments the Catholics have always had about relics finds expression in a 20th century historical novel about St. Helen by Evelyn Waugh. In the novel, Helena objects to her son’s going off to build churches in honour of Wisdom and Peace.

“You can’t just send for Peace and Wisdom, can you?” Helena continued, “and build houses for them and shut them in. Why, they don’t exist at all except in people, do they? Give me real bones every time.”

By the veneration of relics, Catholics exercise their contact with members of the Church triumphant. It’s a contact we can have anyway through prayer, but for those of us in the Church militant, with souls still united to bodies, this contact is strengthened and sustained by the physical presence of the relics and by the practice of bows and kisses and incensations etc.


Gage of Future Glory

We can understand, therefore, something about the special claim the relics of the martyrs have to our expressions of honour. In every saint there is an excellence of grace, which indicates the presence of Christ, and for that reason we honour them. In the relics of any saint, we can expect to see at the end of time the light of a glorified body. The reason for a special debt of honour we owe the martyrs is clear. They made Christ manifest in the world by imitating Him in His highest action, His Passion and Death, to the extent of bearing witness to the truth by shedding their blood. Certainly, if we are confessing the same faith as the Apostles, we owe it in part to the martyrs.

However, by the words, gestures and signs, many of which have been absorbed into the Church’s official worship, the faithful not only honour the martyr and ask for his intercession, but they also reaffirm that they share in the same reality with the martyr, that they are members of the same communion of Saints. This can be said of any saint, but the martyrs are the first born sons of our Holy Mother Church, elder brothers therefore, who deserve a special degree of reverence.