Popular Devotion and Relics


This edition of the Catholic Leader contains information about the Australian Pilgrimage of the Relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux.
Recent pilgrimages of St Thérèse’s relics in America, Europe, Ireland and Canada have drawn huge crowds. Some Australian Catholics however feel uncomfortable about venerating parts of the body of a saint. In the most recent edition of Liturgy News (December 2001) the editor, Rev Dr Tom Elich, deals with this issue of popular devotion and relics. What follows comes from his editorial.
In the early church, altars were constructed over the tombs of martyrs; medieval cathedrals often have an altar built over the bones of the saintly founder/bishop. In these cases there is a clear connection with the tradition of faith in a particular place.
The 1977 Rite of Dedication of a Church and an Altar affirms the tradition of placing relics beneath the altar but insists that such relics should be of a size sufficient for them to be recognised as parts of human bodies. The greatest care must be taken to determine whether the relics in question are authentic. It is better for an altar to be dedicated without relics than to have relics of doubtful authenticity placed beneath it. (Dedication no. 5)
The rite of dedication forbids a relic to be placed upon the altar or set into the table of the altar. It belongs beneath the altar. The rite quotes a letter of Ambrose on the relationship between the martyr and Christ: Let the triumphant victims rest in the place where Christ is victim: he however who suffered for all, upon the altar; they who have been redeemed by his suffering, beneath the altar (Dedication nos. 5, 14). As we celebrate the eucharist at the altar, a relic helps us make the link between the liturgy and a holy Christian life.
There are obvious difficulties with respect to obtaining significant relics in Australia. Apart from the tomb of Mary MacKillop at Mount Street in North Sydney, they are extremely scarce. Consequently, relics have not played a large role in popular devotion in this country. No doubt, for Australian Catholics of European background, this lack has been a test of faith.
The idea of dividing the remains of a martyr or other saint into multiple relics is generally viewed by Catholics in Australia today with a certain repugnance. For us, veneration of the dead demands respect for the integrity of the dead person’s remains. However, customs vary and practices change. We have now come to accept cremation, whereas half a century ago it was widely regarded as offensive to Christian faith in the resurrection. Dividing the bones of a saint is meant to multiply and spread the veneration and devotion surrounding the holy person.
As we receive the relics of St Thérèse this year and reflect upon the place of popular piety in Catholic life, we should guard against an unseemly preoccupation with miracles or superstition. The communion of saints is a more solid doctrine that that. St Thérèse’s own humble faith and artless simplicity provide a good model for the way in which we receive and venerate her relics.

Elizabeth Harrington