Forbes recently focused on the industry of relics within the Roman Catholic Church. A bulk of the article was focusing on an ‘antique’ dealer in Manhattan. It is as amazing as it is unsettling to read through and see both the supply and the demand for such obscure items.
For example, at this store the skulls of martyrs are sold for $4,500, the teeth of saints go for $300, and for a mere $975 you can get what is purported to be a tiny splinter from Jesus’ cross. Recently a stone that is supposedly from the site of the transfiguration was sold for $430,000. Gulp.
There are certain classes of relics, according to the article:
Vendors have a lingo in which relics are classified into grades. “First class” pertains to body parts of saints–a fingernail of the Apostle Paul, say, or a strand of the Virgin Mary’s hair. Items (supposedly) touched by Jesus often are first class. The second class encompasses the relics of lesser figures–Mother Teresa’s tennis shoes. The third class has items that have touched something first class–the “touched” nail described above, for instance.
(I didn’t even know Mother Teresa wore tennis shoes. If Phil Knight at Nike knew this I’m sure he would have been all over it. I can just see it now, the Nike Air Force Nun.)
If and when Pope Benedict XVI is beatified, his visit to the U.S. will have created a host of relics. Anything he touched will count–a business card, a rosary, a faucet. While the provenance of such new relics is easy to establish–a photo would do–that of ancient relics is more problematic, especially of ones attributed to Jesus. There are people who believe that the Shroud of Turin wrapped His body, others who stand by a radiocarbon analysis pointing to an origin circa 1300.
You have got to wonder how these items are verified. According to the article:
Some first-class relics come with a red papal seal (meaning they’ve been vetted by the Vatican) and papers, usually in Latin, describing the item and its history.
Well, that doesn’t make me feel any better. This reminds me of the disturbing discoveries in the relic industry from the days of Calvin:
“In this town (Geneva) there was formerly, it is said, an arm of St Anthony; it was kissed and worshiped as long as it remained in its shrine; but when it was turned out and examined, it was found to be the bone of a stag. There was on the high altar the brain of St Peter; so long as it rested in its shrine, nobody ever doubted its genuineness, for it would have been blasphemy to do so; but when it was subjected to a close inspection, it proved to be a piece of pumice-stone. I could quote many instances of this kind; but these will be sufficient to give an idea of the quantity of precious rubbish there would have been found if a thorough and universal investigation of all the relics of Europe had ever taken place.” (John Calvin’s Treatise on Relics)
The article also points out some of the history of the relic market:
Trade in relics arose in the Middle Ages, when Catholic pilgrims returned home from the Holy Land with tokens of the burial places of martyrs or of the martyrs themselves. These relics were believed capable of working miracles. Predictably, copies began to flood the marketplace–the fake Louis Vuitton handbags of their day. Sixteenth-century Protestant theologian John Calvin once quipped that there were enough pieces of the True Cross to “form a whole ship’s cargo.”
There is, apparently, a restriction on selling relics but at the same time a standing order to recover them:
Catholic canon law now plainly forbids their sale. But the door to buying them is left open by an injunction that Catholics “rescue” relics. If, for instance, a Catholic sees a relic in a pawnshop, he or she is obliged to buy it, so that it won’t be used for blasphemous purposes by a nonbeliever.
If this is correct, a good Catholic would have to try their best to out bid others on eBay in order to rescue a Saint’s napkin, faucet, pillow case, toothbrush or fingernail.
This is just too sad. There is a reason why the Lord allowed neither the people nor the devil to know where the body of Moses would be buried (Jude 1.9); for both would exploit the human heart to make him an idol. This superstition is indeed the offspring of idolatry. It serves to take the focus off of God himself, that which is infinitely glorious and worthy of all devotion and instead attach it to finite, fading, earthly objects. This is what Paul articulated in Romans 1 as he unpacked the idolatrous heart:
“For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man…(Romans 1.21-23)
There is no doubt in my mind that this practice of superstition is not of God but of the devil himself. For who else would mastermind an industry that reduces the power of the cross down to a few splinters?! While this practice may have the appearance of true religious piety it is nothing more than a cloak for the cravings of the flesh that aim to siphon glory from God and inject it into self and stuff. Christ did not leave us fragments to initiate or sustain our worship and lead us to antique shops, but rather he left his word and the Holy Spirit to lead us to him, of which is the substance in the midst of all of these shadows.
update: James White weighed in on this post this morning. His article on relics is worth reading.