What in the end is the point of relics?

People venerate relics of St. Therese of Lisieux at the National Shrine of Walsingham (CNS)

There are certain permanent features to anti-Catholic thought, one of which is a suspicion and hatred of relics. Those of us who love Chaucer will remember that his Pardoner in the Canterbury Tales was a purveyor of fake relics through which he fleeced gullible people of their money.

But in his craft, from Berwick unto Ware,
Was no such pardoner in any place.
For in his bag he had a pillowcase
The which, he said, was Our True Lady’s veil:
He said he had a piece of the very sail
That good Saint Peter had, what time he went
Upon the sea, till Jesus changed his bent.
He had a latten cross set full of stones,
And in a bottle had he some pig’s bones.
But with these relics, when he came upon
Some simple parson, then this paragon
In that one day more money stood to gain
Than the poor dupe in two months could attain.
And thus, with flattery and suchlike japes,
He made the parson and the rest his apes.

Unsurprisingly, the Pardoner is portrayed in the most unflattering terms. John of Gaunt, Chaucer’s patron and later brother-in-law, protected the Lollards, and perhaps the poet had Lollard sympathies too. Indeed, the Reformation came up with nothing new to say about relics, except that they were faked, and a means of parting fools from their money. However, the Reformation did go one further: people like Cromwell had the power to destroy relics, and so they did. In so doing priceless works of art were lost to us.

Just as the Reformers hated relics and did their best to destroy them, it is characteristic of Catholics to love and revere relics. There are few places dearer to me than Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, the Roman basilica, founded by Saint Helen, daughter of Old King Cole, which contains the relics of the True Cross. (Yes, I know, virtually everything in that sentence can be disputed by historians!) Again, what Catholic does not love the Holy Shroud of Turin, which is routinely dismissed these days as a medieval forgery? The blood of Saint Januarius too is a focus of continuing devotion.

However, the Church is cautious about these relics, and does not make non-historical or non-scientific claims on their behalf. The Shroud is nowadays proposed to the faithful as an icon of the Passion; and the biannual liquefication of the St Januarius’s blood is described as a ‘prodigy’, not a miracle. And so too with the bones of St peter, which are described by Archbishop Rino Fisichella in nuanced and measured terms, as you can read here.

The Guardian has also picked up on this story about the veneration of the relics of St Peter this coming Sunday, and it, to its credit, reports Archbishop Fisichella’s words. But there is also another current of meaning in the article which is not hard to detect – the age old prejudice against relics, and the idea that relics and their veneration are a sign of the fundamental dishonesty of all Catholics. The article quotes the commentator John Thavis as saying that the circumstances of the relics’ discovery “did not inspire confidence” – which is a wonderfully barbed phrase. You simply can’t trust these priests, can you? They are all as bad as Chaucer’s Pardoner.

But what in the end is the point of relics? They are revered to remind us of that great truth that the Word became Flesh, and that God entered history and left his mark on the world; that what we experience was once experience by God’s own Son, by His Blessed Mother, and by all the saints. The history of God and the history of the world are entwined. Thus relics are making a theological point, which, of course, the Guardian might find equally objectionable. But Christ really existed, He really came among us: to hate relics is in the end to hate the historicity of the Incarnation.