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  • John Thavis

Vatican tightens rules on relic distribution, veneration

Updated: Feb 18, 2020

The Vatican this month issued tighter norms governing how relics are obtained, authenticated and venerated by the faithful.

It might seem an arcane topic to many Catholics, but the Vatican takes it seriously, especially in an age in which relics can be bought and sold online and are vulnerable to other forms of abuse.

The rules were published by the Congregation for Saints’ Causes, the Vatican agency that oversees canonizations, and confirms two trends at the Vatican: greater control over validating relics of saints, and discouragement of cutting up saints’ bodies.

The congregation also emphasized that relics are not to be displayed in “profane” places, a concern that has increased in recent years as saints’ relics have been taken on popular exhibitions through countries around the world. For example, the right forearm of Saint Francis Xavier is about to go on a month-long, 12-city tour of Canada.

I wrote extensively about the Vatican’s treatment of relics in my book, The Vatican Prophecies: Investigating Supernatural Signs, Apparitions, and Miracles in the Modern Age. It was clear to me that officials in Rome are today trying to preserve the ancient practice of relic veneration (which has never really gone out of style) but at the same time move away from the wholesale splicing and distribution of bone fragments.

The new instruction states that “dismemberment of the body” is not allowed unless the congregation gives specific permission to a local bishop.

When I was researching my book, I spoke with Monsignor Zdzislaw Kijas, a Polish Franciscan who worked in the sainthood congregation, who kindly explained many of the modern concerns about relics. Here is an excerpt from my book’s chapter, “A Piece of Holiness”:

Traditionally, most relics have not been removed at the time of a holy person’s death, but only with the approach of beatification, when a tomb is moved to a more dignified location or during an exhumation to verify the condition of the body. This latter ceremony, known by the Latin term recognitio, is still generally performed today. And once the tomb is unsealed, it’s open season on relics – in theory, at least. Each sainthood cause has an appointed postulator, whose job is to guide the cause to the finish line and take care of documentation. It’s generally the postulator who, with the approval of the Vatican’s saints’ congregation, orders the removal of body parts for relics. In past centuries, such exhumations were the occasion of abuses, usually well-intentioned but over-the-top by modern standards. To give just one example, when the tomb of Saint Teresa of Avila was opened a year after her death in the late 1500s, the saint’s spiritual director, Father Jerónimo Gracián, cut off her left hand and had it sent to a Carmelite convent – except for her left ring finger, which he removed and wore around his neck for the rest of his life. In subsequent years, Saint Teresa’s relics were dispersed piece by piece, including the heart, the right arm, a foot, her left eye and a piece of jawbone. It became the focus of a bitter conflict among Catholic groups, and church officials sometimes cite the episode to illustrate the potential dangers of relic veneration.

That wouldn’t happen today, Monsignor Kijas said. “If the body is intact, you can take some bone. But there is a hygienic element in all this, as well as respect for the body. You can’t just cut off parts at will. In some cases, there may be no relics removed.”

Once the material is taken out, it’s carefully maintained and dispensed to pastors and church communities who follow the application procedure. Typically, a local parish will ask for the relics of a saint when dedicating a new church, for placement under the altar. When the archdiocese of Anchorage wanted a relic for the Saint Andrew Kim Taegon Church, dedicated to a Korean-born priest and martyr of the nineteenth century, they waited two years before authorities in Rome finally FedExed a piece of bone from the spine of the saint.

Obtaining first-class relics has become more and more difficult, reflecting the trend away from carving up bodies. Increasingly, “officials are not taking bones from the tombs of prospective saints,” said Monsignor Enrico Viganò, a Vatican liturgist. Those asking for relics are more likely to receive an article of clothing or a prayer book used by the saint. In some cases, the relic falls into a gray area. In 1999, the Saint John Cantius Parish in Chicago received a relic of Saint Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, a widely venerated Italian Capuchin priest who died in 1968. It was not exactly a body part but a square of linen stained with blood from a laceration in the saint’s side, a wound known as the “transverberation of the heart” – in mystical tradition, a bleeding of the soul inflamed by the love of God. The Chicago parish proudly proclaims it a first-class relic.

The size of relics has been a matter of debate among Vatican experts. When it revised its rules twenty years ago, the Vatican recommended that relics venerated in churches be big enough to be recognized as parts of the human body. That policy seems to have been ignored, in part because most of the relics in circulation today are fragments, and also because the severing of a saint’s arm or leg would strike many today as mutilation.

“What we say now is that a relic should be visible. In other words, that it’s not powder, that it be visibly recognizable as a relic, something that can be seen or touched. In the past, we’ve had relics so small that you needed a magnifying glass to view it,” Monsignor Kijas explained. Especially in recent years, the trend of drawing blood or cutting hair immediately after death has won favor precisely because it does not require slicing up a body.

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