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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 it.

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 visible—such 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 his teaching.

'Oil of St. Jude' being blessed with a relic of the Apostle.