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Do all Catholic altars contain relics?

Do all Catholic altars contain relics?

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Q: I would like to know the present teaching of the Church, with documentary evidence, on fixing relics of the saints at the altar of Holy Mass. — K.S., Nagapattinam, India

A: The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 302, contains the following statement: “The practice of placing relics of Saints, even those not Martyrs, under the altar to be dedicated is fittingly retained. Care should be taken, however, to ensure the authenticity of such relics.”

This statement summarizes the more detailed treatment of this question found in other documents such as the Roman Pontifical, Dedication of a Church and an Altar, and in the Ceremonial of Bishops.

No. 866 of this latter book indicates the basic norms for relics:

“The tradition in the Roman liturgy of placing relics of martyrs or other saints beneath the altar should be preserved, if possible. But the following should be noted:

“a. such relics should be of a size sufficient for them to be recognized as parts of human bodies; hence excessively small relics of one or more saints must not be placed beneath the altar;

“b. 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;

“c. a reliquary must not be placed upon the altar or set into the table of the altar; it must be placed beneath the table of the altar, as the design of the altar permits.”

Other numbers such as 876-877 describe some details as to the vesture and form of the entrance processions and the contents of the copy of the record of the dedication to be placed in the reliquary.

Later, in No. 900, the Ceremonial describes the rite of depositing of the relics:

“If relics of the martyrs or other saints are to be placed beneath the altar, the bishop approaches the altar. A deacon or presbyter brings the relics to the bishop, who places them in a suitably prepared aperture. Meanwhile Psalm 15 (14), with the antiphon ‘Saints of God’ or ‘The bodies of the saints,’ or some other suitable song is sung.

“During the singing a stonemason closes the aperture, and the bishop returns to the chair (cathedra).”

* * *

Follow-up: The Pope’s Veil

I knew that I could rely on our well-informed readers to relieve me of my ignorance regarding the purpose of the veil placed on the face of Pope John Paul II before his coffin was sealed .

Many readers, above all those hailing from the venerable traditions of the Eastern Churches, have written to explain that this veil is a common custom for priestly funerals, often accompanied by an anointing with blessed oils.

One reader explains: “In the Byzantine funeral-liturgy for a priest, the large veil (the one used to cover chalice and paten) is placed on the face of the deceased. It is on the one hand a symbol of the strength and protection of God, on the other hand a symbol of the tomb of Christ.” Other readers attest similar practices in other rites such as the Melkite and Ruthenian.

Some hypothesize that this custom may have originated in Jewish burial customs.

One reader wrote: “In the Jewish burial custom, the Jews would anoint the faces of their dead priests with oil and then wrap them in a white cloth. This same action was apparently performed on Jesus.

“In the early Eastern churches at every Divine Liturgy, the priest would fan his chalice veil over the gifts during the Creed (a practice that endures to this day). During this fanning of the gifts, the priest is not to look over the top of the veil to the other side, a symbolic sign that, here on earth, he has the faith to believe what, after he dies, he will come to see.

“After the death of the priest, the veil would be placed over the face of the priest, with the front side of the veil, which faced away from him during the Creed, touching his face. This veiling of the priest’s face was symbolic of the fact that, now that the priest was dead, he now saw what before he only believed.”

It is certainly an appropriate comment, although perhaps not the liturgical reason for the inclusion of this rite as I am inclined to accept the Eastern origin suggested by our correspondents.

Mind you, I am convinced that the veil will be removed well before the resurrection, when, following John Paul II’s likely beatification, his relics will leave the crypt to join other saintly pontiffs in St. Peter’s Basilica itself.

A Hong Kong reader asked some questions regarding liturgical norms.

“According to the Ordo, ritual Masses are not permitted on the Sundays of the Advent, Lent and Easter seasons,” the reader noted. “Then, why was a papal inauguration Mass held on fifth Sunday of the Easter? … We give a lot of theological and liturgical reasons to explain the importance of the liturgical season; however, we break it when we like. … Also will the “new” (or ancient) style of pallium used for other metropolitans?”

As regards the pallium we will have to wait until the next feast of Sts. Peter and Paul to find out, unless in his next public Mass the Holy Father Benedict XVI reverts to the former style.

With respect to the change-of-Mass formula, our correspondent is correct that, strictly speaking, a ritual Mass is not normally allowed on a Sunday in the Easter season.

However, the Pope is the supreme legislator and is able to dispense from a liturgical law for a justifiable reason.

Such dispensations have already been granted for other just causes such as the celebration of the Immaculate Conception in Spain and Italy and that of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico. These feasts are celebrated even if they coincide with a Sunday of Advent, as the dates are intimately tied up to the religious practice of the people in these countries and are also celebrated as civil holidays.

Our correspondent might want to place his objection in perspective. A Mass of papal inauguration probably occurs about six or seven times a century; a funeral could happen every week. The danger of a papal inauguration undermining the theology of the liturgical year is scant and I believe the occasion more that justifies an exception to a liturgical norm.

Finally, a Michigan reader asked about the significance of the triple coffin, the coins and the biography placed alongside the body, and the nine days of mourning.

The nine days is a fairly traditional period of mourning in many countries although not universal as some traditions have 30 days or another period.

The use of some means of identification of the deceased were customary practices that arose in earlier times, above all, for the burial of nobility and monarchs. Such identification has resulted necessary at times. Tombs can be moved, over time, and nothing is permanent. It is enough to think that the first St. Peter’s basilica, finished about the year 330, was almost completely demolished to make way for the present structure over a thousand years later.

The triple coffin probably originated from practical concerns to protect the body, especially as most popes were interred in an above-ground sarcophagus.

What is a Catholic relic?

What is a Catholic relic?

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Relics in the Church

Relics include the physical remains of a saint (or of a person who is considered holy but not yet officially canonized) as well as other objects which have been “sanctified” by being touched to his body.  These relics are divided into two classes: 

First class or real relics include the physical body parts, clothing, and instruments connected with a martyr’s imprisonment, torture, and execution.  Second class or representative relics are those which the faithful have touched to the physical body parts or grave of the saint.

The use of relics has some, although limited, basis in Sacred Scripture. 

  • In II Kings 2:9-14, the Prophet Elisha picked-up the mantle of Elijah, after he had been taken up to heaven in a whirlwind; with it, Elisha struck the water of the Jordan, which then parted so that he could cross.     
  • In another passage (II Kings 13:20-21), some people hurriedly buried a dead man in the grave of Elisha, “but when the man came into contact with the bones of Elisha, he came back to life and rose to his feet.”   
  • In Acts of the Apostles we read, “Meanwhile, God worked extraordinary miracles at the hands of Paul.  When handkerchiefs or cloths which had touched his skin were applied to the sick, their diseases were cured and evil spirits departed from them” (Acts 19:11-12). 

In these three passages, a reverence was given to the actual body or clothing of these very holy people who were indeed God’s chosen instruments– Elijah, Elisha, and St. Paul.  Indeed, miracles were connected with these “relics”– not that some magical power existed in them, but just as God’s work was done through the lives of these holy men so did His work continue after their deaths.  Likewise, just as people were drawn closer to God through the lives of these holy men, so did they (even if through their remains) inspire others to draw closer even after their deaths.  This perspective provides the Church’s understanding of relics.

The veneration of relics of the saints is found in the early history of the Church. 

A letter written by the faithful of the Church in Smyrna in the year 156 provides an account of the death of St. Polycarp, their bishop, who was burned at the stake.  The letter reads, “We took up the bones, which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place, where the Lord will permit us to gather ourselves together, as we are able, in gladness and joy, and to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom.”  Essentially, the relics– the bones and other remains of St. Polycarp– were buried, and the tomb itself was the “reliquary.”  Other accounts attest that the faithful visited the burial places of the saints and miracles occurred.  Moreover, at this time, we see the development of “feast days” marking the death of the saint, the celebration of Mass at the burial place, and a veneration of the remains.

After the legalization of the Church in 313, the tombs of saints were opened and the actual relics were venerated by the faithful.  A bone or other bodily part was placed in a reliquary– a box, locket, and later a glass case– for veneration.  This practice especially grew in the Eastern Church, while the practice of touching cloth to the remains of the saint was more common in the West.  By the time of the Merovingian and Carolingian periods of the Middle Ages, the use of reliquaries was common throughout the whole Church.

The Church strived to keep the use of relics in perspective.  In his Letter to Riparius, St. Jerome (d. 420) wrote in defense of relics:  “We do not worship, we do not adore, for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the Creator, but we venerate the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore Him whose martyrs they are.”

Here we need to pause for a moment.  Perhaps in our technological age, the whole idea of relics may seem strange.  Remember, all of us treasure things that have belonged to someone we love– a piece of clothing, another personal item, or a lock of hair.  Those “relics” remind us of the love we continue to share with that person while he was still living and even after death.  We are very proud to say, “This belongs to my mother,” for instance.  Our hearts are torn when we think about disposing of the very personal things of a deceased loved one.  Even from an historical sense, at Ford’s Theater Museum for instance, we can see things that belonged to President Lincoln, including the blood stained pillow on which he died.  With great reverence then, we treasure the relics of saints, the holy instruments of God.

During the Middle Ages, the “translation of relics” grew, meaning the removal of relics from the tombs, their placement in reliquaries, and their dispersal.  Sadly, abuses grew also.  With various barbarian invasions, the conquests of the Crusades, the lack of means for verifying all relics, and less than reputable individuals who in their greed preyed on the ignorant and superstitious, abuses did occur.  Even St. Augustine (d. 430) denounced impostors who dressed as monks selling spurious relics of saints.  Pope St. Gregory (d. 604) forbade the selling of relics and the disruption of tombs in the catacombs.  Unfortunately, the Popes or other religious authorities were powerless in trying to control the translation of relics or to prevent forgeries.  Eventually, these abuses prompted the Protestant leaders to attack the idea of relics totally.  (Unfortunately, the abuses and the negative reaction surrounding relics has led many people to this day to be skeptical about them.)

In response, the Council of Trent (1563) defended invoking the prayers of the saints, and venerating their relics and burial places:  “The sacred bodies of the holy martyrs and of the other saints living with Christ, which have been living members of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit, and which are destined to be raised and glorified by Him unto life eternal, should also be venerated by the faithful.  Through them, many benefits are granted to men by God.”

Since that time, the Church has taken stringent measures to insure the proper preservation and veneration of relics.  The Code of Canon Law (#1190) absolutely forbids the selling of sacred relics, and they cannot be “validly alienated or perpetually transferred” without permission of the Holy See.  Moreover, any relic today would have proper documentation attesting to its authenticity.  The Code also supports the proper place for relics in our Catholic practice:  Canon 1237 states, “The ancient tradition of keeping the relics of martyrs and other saints under a fixed altar is to be preserved according to the norms given in the liturgical books,” (a practice widespread since the fourth century).  Many Churches also have relics of their patron saints which the faithful venerate on appropriate occasions.  And yes, reports of the Lord’s miracles and favors continue to be connected with the intercession of a saint and the veneration of his relics.  In all, relics remind us of the holiness of a saint and his cooperation in God’s work; at the same time, relics inspire us to ask for the prayers of that saint and to beg the grace of God to live the same kind a faith-filled life.

The most popular Catholic prayers?

The most popular Catholic prayers?

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The Most Catholic Prayers

Like most religions, Catholicism has specific prayers that believers say at certain times or on certain occasions. The Our Father is part of the Catholic Mass, for example, and the Act of Contrition is said as part of the Sacrament of Penance. The Glory Be and Hail Mary are repeated as part of the Rosary, along with the Our Father:

  • Our Father: Our Father, Who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name; Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.
  • Hail Mary: Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
  • Glory Be: Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
  • Act of Contrition: O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended You. I detest all my sins because of your just punishments, but most of all because they offend you, My God, who are all good and worthy of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Your grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasions of sin. Amen.
Seven Most Powerful Prayers in History

Seven Most Powerful Prayers in History

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In such circumstances, we do well to focus on the most powerful prayers given to us by our forebears. For extraordinary times, here are the seven most powerful prayers in history.

These prayers have the potential to change lives. Some have even changed entire nations. As you pray, consider the power each of these prayers has, and the changes they can make in your life, should you take them to heart.

Our Father 

This is the quintessential Christian prayer, given to us by Jesus Christ Himself. It suffices as an all occasion prayer that hits all the bases. It acknowledges God’s greatness, it invites God’s will, it petitions God for our needs, and requests pardon as we pledge to forgive. 

Our Father, Who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name; Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.

Hail Mary 

This prayer is remarkable because it is dedicated to the Queen of Heaven, Mary, whose intercession is especially powerful. This remarkably simple prayer has few elements, but all are taken from scripture. It praises Mary, and asks for her intercession. It is short, so it can be easily memorized and quickly spoken, and is the backbone of the devotion of the Rosary, which is easily the world’s most powerful devotion. With countless miracles and conversions to its credit, the Hail Mary is an extraordinary composition. 

Hail Mary full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed are thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death Amen.

The Prayer of Jabez 

This is a life changing prayer. It’s often overlooked because it is buried deep in an Old Testament genealogy and refers to a person who wrote no books. It was written down by Ezra, the author of 1 Chronicles. The prayer is a petition, asking God for a blessing of abundance and protection.

Jabez called on the God of Israel. ‘If you truly bless me,’ he said, ‘you will extend my lands, your hand will be with me, you will keep harm away and my distress will cease.’ God granted him what he had asked. (1 Chronicles 4:10)

Jonah’s Prayer for Salvation 

We all face distress. Jonah found himself in the belly of the leviathan, and from this place of utter despair and hopelessness, he cried for salvation. How often do we find ourselves already in the belly of the beast? Yet, even from this place we can cry out to the Lord and still He saves us!

Out of my distress I cried to Yahweh and he answered me, from the belly of Sheol I cried out; you heard my voice!

For you threw me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the floods closed round me. All your waves and billows passed over me;

then I thought, ‘I am banished from your sight; how shall I ever see your holy Temple again?’

The waters round me rose to my neck, the deep was closing round me, seaweed twining round my head.

To the roots of the mountains, I sank into the underworld, and its bars closed round me for ever. But you raised my life from the Pit, Yahweh my God!

When my soul was growing ever weaker, Yahweh, I remembered you, and my prayer reached you in your holy Temple.

Some abandon their faithful love by worshipping false gods,

10 but I shall sacrifice to you with songs of praise. The vow I have made I shall fulfil! Salvation comes from Yahweh!

(Jonah 2:3-9)

David’s Prayer for Deliverance 

Pursued by his own brother, David prayed for God to deliver him from his enemies. It seems most of us have enemies who out of a twisted sense of justice, or perhaps out of evil, they seek to destroy us. Instead of seeking mercy and common accord, they believe they can only be satisfied with our downfall. When faced with such evil, we can ask God to protect us.

Yahweh, how countless are my enemies, how countless those who rise up against me,

how countless those who say of me, ‘No salvation for him from his God!

But you, Yahweh, the shield at my side, my glory, you hold my head high.

I cry out to Yahweh; he answers from his holy mountain.

As for me, if I lie down and sleep, I shall awake, for Yahweh sustains me.

I have no fear of people in their thousands upon thousands, who range themselves against me wherever I turn.

Arise, Yahweh, rescue me, my God! You strike all my foes across the face, you break the teeth of the wicked.

In Yahweh is salvation, on your people, your blessing!

(Psalm 3)

Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel 

There are few words the devil must hate to hear as much as these. Saint Michael is the defender of all faithful, and his sword is swift and keen. When confronted with evil, these words invoke St. Michael’s protection and invite his incredible intercession.

Holy Michael, the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray; and do you, O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who wander through the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.

Jesus at Gethsemane — This prayer is perhaps the simplest, yet most profound prayer one can recite. Spoken by Jesus, it demonstrates how we must accept God’s will, even when we don’t like it. By accepting the will of God, we can be transfigured. Sometimes, the cup comes to us, thy will be done.

“Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me. Nevertheless, let your will be done, not mine.”

(Luke 22:42)