Feast of the Holy Relics – 5 November – From the Liturgical Year, 1901.
Had we Angels’ eyes, we should see the earth as a vast field sown with seed for the Resurrection. The death of Abel opened the first furrow and ever since, the sowing has gone on unceasingly, the wide world over. This land of labour and of suffering, what treasures it already holds laid up in its bosom! And what a harvest for Heaven, when the Sun of Justice, suddenly darting forth His rays, shall cause to spring up, as suddenly from the soil, the elect ears ripe for glory! No wonder that the Church herself blesses and superintends, the laying of the precious grain in the earth.
But the Church is not content to be always sowing. Sometimes, as though impatient of delay, she raises from the ground the chosen seed she had sown therein. Her infallible discernment preserves her from error and, disengaging from the soil the immortal germ, she forestalls the glory of the future. She encloses the treasure in gold or precious stuffs, carries it in triumph, invites the multitudes to come and reverence it; or, she raises new temples to the name of the blessed one and assigns him the highest honour of reposing under the Altar, whereon she offers to God, the tremendous Sacrifice.
“Let your charity understand,” explains St Augustine (Aug. Sermo cccxviii, de Stephano Mart. V): “it is not to Stephen we raise an Altar in this place but of Stephen’s relics, we make an Altar to God. God loves these Altars and, if you ask the reason – Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints (Ps. cxv, 15).” In obedience to God “the invisible soul has quitted its visible dwelling. But God preserves this dwelling; He is glorified by the honour we pay to this lifeless flesh and, clothing it with the might of His Divinity, He gives it the power of working miracles” (Aug. Sermo cclxxv, de Vincentio Mart. II). Hence the origin of pilgrimages to the Shrines of the Saints.
“Christian people,” says St Gregory of Nyssa, “wherefore are you assembled here? A tomb has no attractions, nay, the sight of its contents inspires horror! Yet, see what eagerness to approach this sepulchre! So great an object of desire is it, that a little of the dust from around it is esteemed a gift of great price. As to beholding the remains it conceals, that is a rare favour and an enviable one, as those can testify who enjoy the privilege: they embrace the holy body as though it were yet alive, they press their lips and their eyes upon it, shedding tears of love and devotion. What emperor ever received such honour ”(Greg. Nyssa de Theodoro Mart)?”
“Emperors!” rejoins St John Chrysostom; “as the porters at their gates, such have they become with regard to poor fishers. The son of the great Constantine deemed he could not pay a higher honour to his father, than to procure him a place of sepulture in the porch of the fisherman of Galilee” (Chrys. in Epist. II. ad Cor. Hom. xxvi). And again, concluding his commentary on St Paul’s admirable Epistle to the Romans, the golden-mouthed Doctor exclaims: “And now, who will grant me to prostrate myself at Paul’s sepulchre, to contemplate the ashes of that body which, suffering for us, filled up what was wanting of the sufferings of Christ? The dust of that mouth, which spoke boldly before kings, and, showing what Paul was, revealed the Lord of Paul? The dust of that heart, truly the heart of the world, more lofty than the heavens, more vast than the universe, as much, the heart of Christ as of Paul and wherein might be read, the book of grace, graven by the Holy Spirit? Oh! that I might see the remains of the hands, which wrote those Epistles; of the eyes, which were struck with blindness and recovered their sight for our salvation; of the feet which traversed the whole earth! Yes. I would fain contemplate the tomb where repose these instruments of justice and of light, these members of Christ, this temple of the Holy Ghost. O venerable body, which, together with that of Peter, protects Rome more securely, than all ramparts” (Chrys. in Epist. ad Rom. Hom. xxxii)
In spite of such teachings as these, the heretics of the sixteenth Century profaned the tombs of the Saints, under pretext of bringing us back to the doctrine of our forefathers. In contradiction to these strange reformers, the Council of Trent expressed the unanimous testimony of Tradition, in the following definition, which sets forth the theological reasons of the honour paid by the Church, to the relics of Saints:,
“Veneration ought to be shown, by the faithful, to the bodies of the Martyrs and other Saints, who live with Jesus Christ. For they were His living members and the temples of the Holy Ghost; He will raise them up again to eternal life and glory and through them, God grants many blessings to mankind. Therefore, those who say that the relics of the Saints are not worthy of veneration, that it is useless for the faithful to honour them, that it is vain to visit the memorials or monuments of the Saints, in order to obtain their aid, are absolutely to be condemned and, as they have already been long ago condemned, (Conc. Nic. II. cap. vii), the Church now condemns them once more” (Conc. Tird. Sess. xxv. De invocatione, veneratione et reliquiis Sanctorum).