Tuesday, November 11, 2014

What's with Catholics and bones? Why we venerate the relics of saints

Relics at the Church of St John Cantius, Chicago

November 9th – Dedication of the Lateran Basilica

Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? … For the temple of God, which you are, is holy.

As we praise God for the dedication of the Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior and of Sts. John the Baptist and the Evangelist on the Lateran, commonly known as St. John Lateran’s, we have a moment to consider that the soul is truly the temple of the Most High God.

Further, reflecting upon how the exterior place of worship (the church) is a symbol for the interior place of worship (the soul), we will further consider how the dedication of a church recalls the theological basis of the Catholic veneration of the relics of the saints.

God desires to dwell in you as in a temple

St. Paul, in his first Letter to the Corinthians, makes the comparison between the soul of a believer and the temple of God. You are God’s building […] Know you not, that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? […] For the temple of God is holy, which you are. (1 Corinthians 3:9,16,17)

The Angelic Thomas echoes this when discussing the mystery of sanctifying grace in relation to the invisible mission of the Son and the Spirit in to the hearts of believers:

“For God is in all things by His essence, power and presence, according to His one common mode, as the cause existing in the effects which participate in His goodness. Above and beyond this common mode, however, there is one special mode belonging to the rational nature wherein God is said to be present as the object known is in the knower, and the beloved in the lover. And since the rational creature by its operation of knowledge and love attains to God Himself, according to this special mode God is said not only to exist in the rational creature but also to dwell therein as in His own temple. So no other effect can be put down as the reason why the divine person is in the rational creature in a new mode, except sanctifying grace. Hence, the divine person is sent, and proceeds temporally only according to sanctifying grace.” (ST I, q.43, a.3)

By sanctifying grace, the Most Holy Trinity dwells in man (or angel) not merely after the manner in which he is present in all that exists, but in a special mode as the known is in the knower and the beloved is in the lover – and, St. Thomas states, this mode is comparable to the way in which God dwells in the church dedicated to his honor.

Let us pause and consider this comparison!

God is, of course, present everywhere in the universe. However, there is a special respect in which we state that he is present in the churches and chapels consecrated and dedicated to his service. We know that we can pray to God anywhere, and yet he wills that we should seek him most especially in the place dedicated and set aside for worship of him – buildings in which nothing profane enters (not even profane and secular forms of music or dress), but where all that is and is done is ordered to the adoration of the Almighty.

So it is, by analogy, with the soul in the state of grace. The good God is present everywhere, and in every soul; but the soul in the state of grace is not to be given over to profane things, but is a place consecrated to the worship of God. Thus, the Trinity dwells in this soul, not only in the manner in which he dwells in all that exists, but in a new mode – he dwells in us as one who is known and loved by us, making us to be the knower and the lover of this great King!

The church building as a symbol for your soul

Consider the following excerpt from a sermon by St. Caesarius of Arles on the occasion of the dedication of a church, which is used in the Liturgy of the Hours for the Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica:

“My fellow Christians, today is the birthday of this church, an occasion for celebration and rejoicing. We, however, ought to be the true and living temple of God. […] Indeed, before our baptism we were sanctuaries of the devil; but after our baptism we merited the privilege of being temples of Christ. And if we think more carefully about the meaning of our salvation, we shall realize that we are indeed living and true temples of God.

“Whenever we come to church, we must prepare our hearts to be as beautiful as we expect this church to be. Do you wish to find this basilica immaculately clean? Then do not soil your soul with the filth of sins. Do you wish this basilica to be full of light? God too wishes that your soul be not in darkness, but that the light of good works shine in us, so that he who dwells in the heavens will be glorified. Just as you enter this church building, so God wishes to enter into your soul, for he promised: I shall live in them, I shall walk through their hearts.

The veneration of relics

Thus, the Christian is called to present his soul to God as a pure and holy temple, in which the Spirit of God may find gentle repose and ever dwell. Indeed, the saintly soul is most perfectly possessed by the Holy Spirit, filled and vivified by him through the gift of grace.

Yet, what is more, the grace of God so fills the souls of the saints that there very bodies becoming living temples of God, tabernacles of the Holy Spirit. This should come as no surprise, for it was in this body that the soul received grace, especially through the sacraments, ought this same body not to become the temple of the Holy Spirit through the grace bestowed upon the soul?

Consider the body of the Angel of the Schools: It was in that body that Thomas was baptized, confirmed and received communion. It was in that body that he won the angelic virtue of purity. In that body he prayed and fasted. In that body he was forgiven his sins. In that body he was consecrated as a priest of God. In that body he studied and labored. And in that body he was strengthened for the particular judgment with the sacrament of the sick. Ought not this body to participate in some measure in the grace bestowed upon this angelic soul through a body so angelic?

Yes, it must be so! Surely, the bodies of the saints which were so well subjected to the dictates of the soul must truly be temples of the Spirit who dwelt in their soul. The bodies of the great saints were themselves consecrated to God, dedicated to his service, and thus are rightly called temples of the Almighty.

It is for this very reason that the church venerates the remains of these bodies as holy relics.

If you marvel at a church building, marvel far more at a saint’s relic

None would criticize a Catholic for traveling a great distance to see the beautiful basilicas of Rome and of Europe. Yet these magnificent buildings are nothing but lifeless stone! The bodies of the saints, on the other hand, were once made to live by souls wholly united to God! If the stone of churches deserves admiration (and it surely does), how much more ought men to praise and venerate the bodies of the saints which were the living temples of God!

This is the essence of the doctrine of the Church regarding relics, which is clearly expressed by the Council of Trent:

“The holy Synod enjoins on all bishops, and others who sustain the office and charge of teaching, that, agreeably to the usage of the Catholic and Apostolic Church, received from the primitive times of the Christian religion, and agreeably to the consent of the holy Fathers, and to the decrees of sacred Councils, they especially instruct the faithful diligently concerning the intercession and invocation of saints […] Also, that the holy bodies of holy martyrs, and of others 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 unto eternal life, and to be glorified,-- are to be venerated by the faithful; through which (bodies) many benefits are bestowed by God on men.” (Session XXV)

Nota Bene: Relics are divided into three classes as follows – 1st Class, pieces of the body of the saint (either of bone, or teeth, or hair, or blood, etc); 2nd Class, pieces of objects which were touched by the saint during his life; 3rd Class, pieces of objects which were touched to the body of the saint after his death.


Marko Ivančičević said...

This is one of the most beautiful articles you've ever written.

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