Holy or Macabre, Relics and Incorruptible Saints?

Holy or Macabre, Relics and Incorruptible Saints?

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 Relics and Incorruptible Saints

by Ed Masters

For centuries, Catholics have viewed relics and the incorruptible bodies of saints as objects of wonder, piety, and holiness. In modern times, however, our understanding of these things has declined so far that many simply think that revering such objects or bodies is superstitious or macabre.

But what does the Church actually teach about these amazing things?

The origin of relics

Every altar in a Catholic church must contain a relic, a tradition which stretches back over the centuries to the time of the Christian martyrs of ancient Rome. The torn bodies of Christians who had been tortured and murdered for the entertainment of the Roman crowds were handed over to the brethren.

Often, what little remained was buried with great reverence in the enclosed gardens of Christians. There, altars were erected over the remains. This was because early Christians believed that these martyrs were surely saints, and thus their remains consecrated the ground, making it holy.

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ALTAR WITH RELICS at the Basilica of Saint Benedict, Norcia, Italy.

Every altar in a Catholic church must contain a relic, a tradition which stretches back over the centuries to the time of the Christian martyrs of ancient Rome.

Venerating relics

Relics have a long tradition. In the Traditional Calendar, the Feast of the Holy Relics is kept every November 5. With the church calendar changes of 1969, this feast was set aside, but not abrogated.

St. Jerome lived from 347-420 AD. A Doctor of the Church, Jerome was the first to translate the Bible from Greek to Latin. He has this to say about the veneration of relics: “[B]ut we honor the martyrs' relics, so that thereby we give honor to Him Whose witness they are: we honor the servants, that the honor shown to them may reflect on their Master….Consequently, by honoring the martyrs' relics we do not fall into the error of the Gentiles, who gave the worship of ‘latria' to dead men.” (From St. Jerome's “Ad Riparium”)

Venerating relics also has a long biblical tradition. The Old Testament contains stories of the ancient Hebrews’ venerating relics. In Exodus 13:19, Moses took Joseph's bones out of Egypt. Also, in 4 Kings 13:21, a dead man thrown into the prophet Eliseus' tomb touched his bones and came to life. In Matthew 9:20 and Luke 8:23, a woman who had a hemorrhage touched the hem of Jesus' garment, seeking healing. St. Paul (Acts of the Apostles 19:12), cured the sick when people touched handkerchiefs and aprons to his body and brought them to the sick and the possessed.

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RELIQUARY CONTAINING THE REMAINS OF THE THREE KINGS: The relics of the Magi were originally situated at Constantinople, but brought to Milan by Eustorgius I, the city's bishop, to whom they were entrusted by Emperor Constant in 344. They were taken from Milan by Holy Roman Emperor Fredrick Barbarossa and given to the Archbishop of Cologne, Rainald of Dassel eight centuries later, in 1164.

The Old Testament contains stories of the ancient Hebrews’ venerating relics. In Exodus 13:19, Moses took Joseph's bones out of Egypt. Also, in 4 Kings 13:21, a dead man thrown into the prophet Eliseus' tomb touched his bones and came to life.

During the last session of the Council of Trent (1559–63), the Church spelled out her teaching on the veneration of relics. “[T]he holy bodies of the holy martyrs now living with Christ-which bodies were the living members of Christ and the temple of the Holy Ghost and which are by Him to be raised to eternal life and to be glorified are to be venerated by the faithful. The Council also decreed that “in the invocation of Saints the veneration of relics and the sacred use of images, every superstition shall be removed and all filthy lucre abolished…the visitation of relics must not be by any perverted into revelings and drunkenness….to secure a proper check upon abuses of this kind, no new miracles are to be acknowledged or new relics recognized unless the bishop of the diocese has taken cognizance and approved thereof.”

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GERMANS AT PROCESSION FOR THE HOLY ROBE in Trier, Germany April 2012. The ‘Robe' is said to be that worn by Christ when he was mocked by Pilate's soldiers and it is considered to be a first class relic.

St. Paul (Acts of the Apostles 19:12) cured the sick when people touched handkerchiefs and aprons to his body and brought them to the sick and the possessed.

Classifying relics

A first-class relic is a body part of a saint, or any instrument used in the Lord's Passion, such as the crown of thorns or the nails from the cross. A second-class relic is something a saint owned or that was part of the instrument of the saint’s martyrdom. A third-class relic is an object that's been touched to a first- or second-class relic. The faithful can make their own third- class relic by touching an object to a first- or second-class relic.

Buying and selling relics

The selling of relics and other blessed objects is included under the sin of simony, although relics may be legally obtained from Church sources. Simony was so prevalent during the Middle Ages that the Church imposed harsh penalties on those found guilty of it.

Today, one can buy a relic if it’s going to be marketed or if it’s intended for desecration or destruction. Distinguished relics never may be transferred or alienated permanently without permission from the Apostolic See. Even though a donation is expected in cost-covering moves, profiteering from selling relics is prohibited.

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RELIQUARY IN THE SHAPE OF AN EAGLE, traditional symbol of Saint John the Evangelist, at the Co-Cathedral of St. John, Malta.

The selling of relics and other blessed objects is included under the sin of simony, although relics may be legally obtained from Church sources.

Venerating incorruptible saints

Saints whose bodies have not undergone the natural process of decay and still appear as they did when they died are known as “incorruptibles.”

They typically are found flexible and lifelike, and they emit a pleasant scent, called an “odor of sanctity.” In addition, they often exhibit perspiration or flowing blood or oil that exudes from them and that performs miraculous healings. Some saints have only parts of their bodies remain incorrupt, such as the heart or the tongue.

The phenomenon of those persons that have defied the laws of science and nature and have not succumbed to bodily decomposition is known only within Catholicism. The Church counts more than 250 saints, blesseds, and venerables who are incorruptibles. No other religion can claim that one of their adherents has been spared that which God Himself told Adam and his descendants they would be subject to when Adam was expelled from Paradise: “Dust thou art, and to dust thou shall return.”

The phenomenon of those persons that have defied the laws of science and nature and have not succumbed to bodily decomposition is known only within Catholicism. The Church counts more than 250 saints, blesseds, and venerables who are incorruptibles.

The incorruptibles seem to bear witness to the Divine, or supernatural origin of specific events associated with them. Examples would be private revelations and devotions, such as those given at Lourdes to St. Bernadette; at Fatima to Jacinta and Francisco; the Sacred Heart revelations to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque and the devotion she helped to spread; and Pope St. Pius X's fight against Modernism, to name a few.

None of these saints has been preserved accidentally, such as by being buried in a desert where air and moisture can't reach the body Similarly, none have been deliberately preserved by being embalmed or being buried in an airtight tomb, such as John XXIII, who was both embalmed and buried in an airtight tomb.

In some cases wax and makeup have been applied to an incorruptible to enhance his or her appearance. These saints still remain free from bodily decay.  For example, St. Charbel Makhlouf, whose Feast Day is December 24, remained incorrupt for over 50 years. After his body was examined again 67 years after his death it was found to have decayed.

The incorruptibles seem to bear witness to the divine or supernatural origin of specific events associated with them. Examples would be private revelations and devotions, such as those given at Lourdes to St. Bernadette.

LIST OF INCORRUPT SAINTS

Saint Agatha
Saint Agnes of Montepulciano

Blessed Andrew Franchi

Blessed Angela of Foligno

Saint Angela Merici

Blessed Angelo of Acri

Blessed Angelo of Chiavasso

Blessed Anthony Bonfadini

Blessed Anthony of Stroncone

Blessed Antonia of Florence

Saint Benedict the Moor

Saint Bernadette Soubirous

Saint Bernardine of Siena

Saint Catherine of Bologna

Saint Catherine of Genoa

Saint Cecilia

Saint Charles Borromeo

Saint Charles of Sezze

Saint Clare of Assisi

Saint Clare of Montefalco

Saint Crispin of Viterbo

Saint Didacus of Alcala

Saint Eustochium

Saint Fernando III

Saint Frances of Rome

Saint Francis de Sales

Blessed Francis of Fabriano

Venerable Francis Gonzaga

Blessed Gabriel Ferretti

Blessed Gandolph of Binasco

Blessed Helen Enselmini

Saint Ignatius of Laconi

Saint Ignatius of Santhia

Blessed Imelda Lambertini

Blessed James of Bitecto

Saint James of the March

Blessed James Oldo

Blessed James of Pieve

Blessed James of Strepar

Saint Jean-Marie-Baptiste Vianney (The Curé of Ars)

Blessed Jane Mary of Maille

Blessed Jane of Signa

Saint Jane of Valois

Saint John Bosco

Saint Joseph of Cupertino

Saint Louis Bertrand

Blessed Lucy of Narni

Blessed Margaret of Castello

Saint Margaret of Cortona

Blessed Margaret of Lorraine

Blessed Mark Marconi

Venerable Mary of Agreda

Blessed Mary Assunta Pollotta

Blessed Mary Magdalene Martinengo

Blessed Matthia Nazzarei HYPERLINK “http://www.roman-catholic-saints.com/blessed-nicholas-factor.html”
Blessed Nicholas Factor

Saint Pacifico of San Severino

Saint Paschal Baylon

Blessed Philippa Mareri

Saint Pope Pius X

Saint Rose of Viterbo

Blessed Sebastian of Aparicio

Saint Seraphin of Montegranaro

Blessed Salome of Cracow

Saint Sperandia

Saint Veronica Giuliani

Saint Vincent Pallotti

Saint Zita

Saint Albert the Great
Saint Alphege of Canterbury
Blessed Alphonsus of Orozco
Saint Andrew Bobola
Blessed Angelo of Borgo San Sepolcro
Blessed Anna Maria Taigi
Saint Anthony Maria Zaccaria
Saint Antoninus
Blessed Arcangela Girlani
Saint Benezet
Blessed Bernard Scammacca
Blessed Bertrand of Garrigua
Saint Camillus de Lellis
Venerable Catalina de Cristo
Saint Catherine Labouré
Blessed Charbel Makhlouf
Saint Catherine dei Ricci
Saint Catherine of Siena
Saint Coloman
Saint Cuthbert
Saint Dominic Savio
Saint Edmund Rich of Canterbury
Saint Edward the Confessor
Saint Etheldreda
Blessed Eustochia Calafato
Saint Ezequiel Moreno y Diaz
Saint Francis of Paola
Saint Francis Xavier
Saint George Preca
Saint Germaine Cousin
Saint Guthlac
Annibale Maria di Francia (Founder of the Rogationist and Daughters of Divine Zeal)
Saint Herculanus of Piegaro
Saint Hugh of Lincoln
Saint Idesbald
Saint Isidore the Farmer
Blessed James of Blanconibus
Venerable John of Jesus Mary
Saint Jane Frances de Chantal
Saint Jeanne de Lestonnac
Blessed John of Chiaramonte
Saint John of God
Saint John of the Cross
Saint John Southworth
Saint Josaphat
Saint Julie Billiart
Blessed Karl of Austria
Saint Louise de Marillac
Saint Luigi Orione
Saint Lucy Filippini
Saint Madeleine Sophie Barat
Blessed Mafalda of Portugal
Blessed Margaret of Savoy
Saint Maria Goretti
Venerable Maria Vela
Saint Martin de Porres
Blessed Mary Bagnesi
Saint Mary Magdalen de' Pazzi
Blessed Mary of the Divine Heart
Mother Mariana de Jesus Torres
Venerable Mother Maria of Jesus
Saint Nicholas of Tolentino
Blessed Osanna of Mantua
Saint Padre Pio of Pietrelcina
Blessed Paula Frassinetti
Saint Peregrine Laziosi
Blessed Peter Ghigenzi
Saint Philip Neri
Saint Pierre Julien Eymard
Saint Rita of Cascia
Saint Romuald
Saint Rose of Lima
Saint Rose Philippine Duchesne
Blessed Sibyllina Biscossi
Saint Silvan
Saint Stanislaus Kostka
Saint Teresa of Avila
Saint Teresa Margaret of the Sacred Heart
Saint Ubald of Gubbio
Saint Vincent de Paul
Saint Waltheof
Saint Werburgh
Saint Withburga
Saint Wunibald

   

 

[i] Catholic Encyclopedia, “Relics,” New Advent, 1917.

[ii] All biblical references are from the Douay Rheims Bible, on-line version.

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