Curia Corner — What is a relic?

“Wait, What?” Noah said. “What? “Whose heart and it’s what, incurrrrr … what??”

My family laughs as I humbly try to explain to Noah, my second grade grandson, what an incredible gift we have coming to our diocese — the relic pilgrimage of Saint John Vianney’s incorrupt heart.

Relics are also the subject of the most often asked questions in my diocesan archives office.

I am frequently asked, “Whose relic is in the altar of my parish?” and “Don’t all altars in Catholic Churches bear a relic?”

The word relic generally means a part, sometimes of considerable size, of the remains of a martyr or a saint. A part of a human body, either a minute fragment or one entire limb, with the approval of ecclesiastical authority, can be the object of solemn veneration.

A 1st class relic, we believe, of St. John Vianney is housed in our diocese at Terra Sancta. It was discovered in our archives and Fr. Mark McCormick immediately sought out a reliquary to use this relic for veneration. St John Vianney is the patron saint of all diocesan priests. A first class relic consists of a part of the Saint, such as bone, hair, etc … the instruments of Christ’s passion. Underneath the back cover of the relic locket is a red wax seal. It is sealed shut and bears the insignia of issuing religious authority and their initials.

Then-Bishop Blase Cupich blesses the altar at St. Joseph Church, Spearfish. A relic of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was deposited underneath the altar in the tradition of building altars over the resting place of saints. (File photo)

St. Joseph’s parish in Spearfish received a relic of St. Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton as a gift from Msgr. William O’Connell. It was deposited beneath the altar of St. Joseph church on March 20, 2007.

The proper place for relics in our Catholic practice 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” (Canon 1237 — a practice widespread since the fourth century. “Book IV, Sanctifying Office of the Church” Cann. 834 – 12378).

Amy Julian, parishioner of St. Joseph’s who was instrumental in bringing that dedication to fruition says, “It was incredibly special to be a part of that process, and even the West River Catholic was there to take pictures and write a story. By celebrating the deposition in such a public way, we drew a lot of attention to this time honored tradition of building altars over the resting places of saints.”

Julian goes on to say, “Because relics are not easily identifiable through examination, it is important to have a chain of custody that authenticates and identifies the relic so that we know for certain which saint we are honoring and depositing into the altar. “

Our diocesan archives house relics specifically for this chain of custody, to inventory, for safekeeping, and to maintain and preserve the artifacts for all parishes to use, display, and keep this tradition alive in our parishes. They are not to be put away in a drawer, but respectfully and safely kept for historical relevance, in a safe environment controlled haven, church or archives.

A 2nd class relic consists of something that was owned by the Saint or instruments of torture that were used against the martyr. We do not believe we house any second class relics.

The archive does have many 3rd class relics of saints, such as Saint Padre Pio, St. Maria Goretti and Servant of God Francis X. Seelos. A 3rd Class relic consists of something that has been touched to a 1st or 2nd class relic.

Also present is a St. Rose of Lima relic. The stone encased in this gold case, surrounded by beautiful crystal like stones, is perhaps of the little grotto which she built, her small garden, or the bed she constructed herself, made of broken glass, stone and thorns.

The St. Rose Of Lima relic, perhaps our only 2nd class relic, remains undocumented, much like the relics in our parish altars, as of yet …