237. The Missale Romanum reaffirms the validity “of placing the relics of the Saints under an altar that is to be dedicated, even when not those of the martyrs” (GIRM 302). This usage signifies that the sacrifice of the members has its origin in the Sacrifice of the altar (Cf. Roman Pontifical, Order of the Dedication of an Altar, Editio Typica, Typis Polyglotis Vaticanis 1977, cap. IV, Praenotanda, 5), as well as symbolizing the communion with the Sacrifice of Christ of the entire Church, which is called to witness, event to the point of death, fidelity to her Lord and Spouse.
Again, the relic must be significantly recognizable. A particle unidentified is not a relic. So we’re not talking about a token bit placed in a small receptacle.
The Church offers four points for consideration: authenticity, small pieces, collecting, and fraud/trafficking/superstition.
Many popular usages have been associated with this eminently liturgical cultic expression. The faithful deeply revere the relics of the Saints. An adequate pastoral instruction of the faithful about the use of relics will not overlook:
• ensuring the authenticity of the relics exposed for the veneration of the faithful; where doubtful relics have been exposed for the veneration of the faithful, they should be discreetly withdrawn with due pastoral prudence (Cf. Roman Pontifical, Order of the Dedication of an Altar, Editio Typica, Typis Polyglotis Vaticanis 1977, cap. II, Praenotanda, 5);
• preventing undue dispersal of relics into small pieces, since such practice is not consonant with due respect for the human body; the liturgical norms stipulate that relics must be “of a sufficient size as make clear that they are parts of the human body” (Cf. Roman Pontifical, Order of the Dedication of an Altar, Editio Typica, Typis Polyglotis Vaticanis 1977, cap. II, Praenotanda, 5);
• admonishing the faithful to resist the temptation to form collections of relics; in the past this practice has had some deplorable consequences;
• preventing any possibility of fraud, trafficking (Cf. canon law 1190), or superstition.
What are some laudable practices? These are listed, plus some cautions, like placing them on altars:
The various forms of popular veneration of the relics of the Saints, such as kissing, decorations with lights and flowers, bearing them in processions, in no way exclude the possibility of taking the relics of the Saints to the sick and dying, to comfort them or use the intercession of the Saint to ask for healing. Such should be conducted with great dignity and be motivated by faith. The relics of the Saints should not be exposed on the mensa of the altar, since this is reserved for the Body and Blood of the King of Martyrs (Cf. St. Ambrose, Epistula LXXVII (Maur. 22), 13: CSEL 82/3, Vindobonae 1982, pp. 134-135; Roman Pontifical, Order of the Dedication of an Altar, cit., cap. IV, Praenotanda, 10).
Have any readers experience with the veneration of authentic or inauthentic relics in your churches and communities? Remember, the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy is online at the Vatican site.