Storied history of religious relics

Sunday, October 15, 2000     By Christopher Snowbeck, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Relics have often been a source of controversy through the ages -- both for the sorts of worship they've inspired and for claims to their authenticity.

Catholics today, describing how a prayer that involves a relic asks for the intercession of a saint, are careful to acknowledge that only God can bring about healing. One of the driving forces of the Protestant Reformation was the argument that many Christians mistook the power of God working through relics for the power of the physical remains themselves.

"I think over the years it's varied from being a healthy and wholesome practice to periods where it's been almost magical and destructive of faith," said George Worgul Jr., professor of theology at Duquesne University. "That was part of Luther's Reformation. People were thinking of and using relics as magic rather than as witness and testimony" to God's power.

The Protestant Reformation didn't put an end to worshipping God through relics in the Catholic Church. Up until the 1970s, altars in Catholic churches always contained relics of the saints -- a practice that went back to the early days of the church, when Christians had to meet secretly in catacombs and celebrated Com-munion over the tombs of the martyrs, Worgul said.

Claims that relics aren't authentic go at least as far back as Chaucer, who in his "Pardoner's Tale" lampooned a churchman who passed off sheep bones and a mitten as objects of veneration.

The Rev. W. David Schorr, priest at St. Anthony Chapel, says great attention is paid now to authenticating relics.

Relics are created when a bishop, cardinal or a "postulator" -- someone who promotes the cause of a holy person to be named a saint -- takes body parts and makes relics. Nowadays, relics are put into small metal cases that are lined with a red string and sealed with wax. If a relic is found with the string broken, it's authenticity is in doubt, Schorr said. Relics also carry papers documenting the source of and authority by which the relic was made.

Not every relic at St. Anthony's meets those criteria. That's not surprising when considering that the process of making relics wasn't always so systematic, Schorr said.

The Troy Hill church has more than 700 authenticating documents that account for the contents of most of the 800 reliquaries in the chapel. Each reliquary contains anywhere from 1 to 700 relics, so there are documents that authenticate "the vast majority" of the 4,200 relics, Schorr said.

Many of those authenticating documents, however, are not nearly as old as the relics they describe, such as the splinters that are said to be from the cross, the thorns from Jesus' crown and the piece from the Last Supper table.

"As best as they knew whenever they made [a particular] case, that's what the relic was," Schorr said.