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Why does the church venerate relics? (Glad you asked: Q&A on Church Teaching).

Relics are still part of the Catholic liturgical tradition, but, like other pre-Vatican II practices, they're not heard about much in teaching or preaching these days. When the body of Blessed Pope John XXIII--now 38 years dead, beatified, and considered a saint by many--was displayed last year in a crystal and bronze coffin weighing a half-ton, some Catholics wondered if the veneration of a dead body (or parts of a dead body) was still a part of the faith tradition.

From the Latin reliquus, a "relic" is, literally, the physical remains of a dead body, the corpse, or a part of it; a relic can also be an object that has been in physical contact with the body. The fervor for possessing and even stealing relics during certain periods in Christian history prompted the church to curb corporal mutilation of corpses, and the church now advocates that the body of a dead Christian, even one canonized, should not be so divided up that it is no longer recognizable as a part of a human body.

Sounds gruesome to some, perhaps, but care for the human body--and its associations with the Body of Christ in the Eucharist, the Body of Christ in the assembly gathered for Mass, the body of an infant or adult plunged into the waters of Baptism and salvation--is deep in the faith. The body is not merely a means to a spiritual end, but, as was the body of Jesus of Nazareth, it is the bearer of grace, an integral part of being a Christian, imprinted by the seal of the Holy Spirit and ever a sacramental sign of the life of God in the world. We recall Saint Paul's question: "Do you not know that you are members of the Body of Christ?" (1 Corinthians 6:6)

Some find that the expense of caring for the bodies of the dead--like that expended for the display of John XXIII's body--could be better used in the care of the poor, yet the two are not necessarily exclusive of one another. The church attends to the care of the bodies of both the living and the dead. This is manifested in its advocacy for human rights and for the common good of the living as well as in its attention given to the dead, demonstrated well in the rites of Christian burial with the dead body present and, though perhaps odd to our U.S. sensibilities, in the veneration of what remains, "relics," of the dead who had lived among us in the Body of Christ.

Each Sunday at Mass--celebrated around an altar containing a saint's relic--when we pray the Creed, we confess our belief in the "communion of the saints" and in the "resurrection of the body." This profession of communion and corporal resurrection embraces both the living and the dead. Care for and veneration of dead bodies and relics need not distract us from caring for the living but might lead us to recognize the vulnerable and needy in whom the Body of Christ is most evident.

By MARTIN F. CONNELL, a professor of theology at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota.

LYNDA MCDONNELL is a writer and educator who lives in Minneapolis.
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Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2002
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