National Shrine of Saint Jude
This text is an extract from an article
by Carmelite friar Fr. Christopher O'Donnell, O.Carm. We are grateful to the Irish Province of Carmelites for permission to reproduce the text from their website.
The 'Augsberg Reliquary' at Faversham containing a fragment of St. Jude's bones.
The Church's teaching on relics
Three times in ecumenical councils there
have had to be solemn pronouncements on the subject of relics - and for
quite different reasons.
At the Council of Nicea II (a.d. 787)
there were those who sought such a pure religion that they were
totally against any representation of Christ or the saints in
images, and they also rejected relics. Foremost to the defence
of icons and relics had been St. John Damascene (d. ca. 749):
and the Church defending the legitimacy of icons and relics drew
on his teaching: homage or respect is not really paid to an inanimate
object, but to the holy person, and indeed the veneration of a
holy person, is itself honour paid to God.
Four hundred years
later there was a different problem. Now it was abuse of relics,
false relics and exaggerations. At the Fourth Lateran Council
(1215) the Church condemned such abuses, but defended the good
use of relics.
A similar time elapsed when at the Reformation
the idea of relics was again attacked. This time the Council of
Trent in 1563 defended the veneration of relics.
The Catholic position was therefore spelled
out over a period of some eight hundred years, even though the
use of relics goes back almost to the time of the Apostles. St.
Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) following St. Augustine pointed out that
it was natural that people should treasure what is associated
with the dead, like a ring or the garment of a parent. He then
developed four reasons already outlined in John Damascene which
would later be taken up by Trent: the saints are members of Christ,
they are children and friends of God and they are our intercessors.
Therefore we want to draw close to them through their relics.
The place of relics
But do we really need relics, parts of the
body of a saint such as bone, a hair (called a first class relic)
or cloth that has been in contact with the saint’s body (a
second class relic)? If we have a lively faith in the Eucharist,
do we need something infinitely inferior to the Body and Blood
of the Lord? The origin of relics was largely associated with
the Eucharist, which was celebrated at the burial place of holy
people. In time the custom grew in the Church that Mass should
be celebrated on the relics of the saints in the altar stone or
wrapped in the corporal. Indeed, since Nicea II churches are not
to be consecrated without relics, a point made again in Church
law as recently as 1977 in the revised Rite of Dedication of a
Church. The Church is therefore comfortable with relics and the
Eucharist being somehow coupled together. Indeed Mass begins with
the priest kissing the altar, that is, the relics contained in
If, however, we are to understand the veneration
of relics, and put to rest any unease associated with their veneration
we need to get behind the practice of the Church in its Councils
and liturgy to more profound reasons.
Ultimately the use of relics
can be understood only in a double context. Relics have had divine
approbation and they reflect the incarnational nature of our Christian
religion. The issue of God’s approval emerges from the fact
that there have been at all times miracles and especially healings
associated with the relics of the saints. Already in the New Testament
we find that handkerchiefs and other garments which had touched
the flesh of St. Paul at Ephesus cured diseases (see Acts 19:12).
In the Old Testament miracles had been worked through the mantle
of Elijah and the bones of Elisha (see 2 Kings 2:14; 13:21).
Granted then that God has been pleased in
this way to work wonders in biblical times and up to the present,
we might still ask, why? Here we touch the deepest reality of
our religion. God respects the human nature that he created: we
are both spiritual and material. Even God’s salvation of
humanity from sin was by way of Incarnation: God became man in
Jesus Christ. In the Christian religion we move from what is visible
to what is invisible. Jesus tells us that if we see and know him,
we also see and know the Father (see John 14:6-9). God comes to
us though signs and symbols: the sacraments are tangible and
as water, bread, wine, oil, imposition of hands—but through
them we come into divine life. God comes to us in our very bodliness.
As the Anglican scientist and theologian, John Polkinghorne recently
wrote, we are not apprentice angels, but a kind of package deal
of closely related mind and body. Whenever people forget this
truth either by neglecting the spiritual or the material, they
come into serious distortions of life itself.
Relics are one way in which God helps us
in our bodily humanity to rise to spiritual realities. Through
relics we can feel close to a holy person. We have a deeper awareness
of their life and mission, of their presence in the Communion
of Saints. Religion can never be purely intellectual; it must
rather touch us at different levels of our being. Relics are clearly
not as important as the sacraments. And like the sacraments, relics
can be abused. We cannot stop at the holy relics of the saints,
but we must reach further into God’s plans. Buddhism, the
only other major religion apart from Catholic Christianity to
have a major place for relics, insists too that we must go beyond
the relic. One of its traditions is that the Buddha himself told
his followers not to concentrate on his bodily remains but on
'Oil of St. Jude' being blessed with a relic of the Apostle.