Joseph Shaw

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Reliquary and skull of Saint Ivo of Kermartin (St. Yves or St. Ives), (1253–1303) in Tréguier, Brittany, France

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Science is backing up cherished Catholic relics as genuine

October 18, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – Over at the New Liturgical Movement, Gregory DiPippo passes on for English-speakers Italian-language reports of a scientific analysis of the relics (a full skeleton) of St Ambrose of Milan.

St Ambrose (337-397) was one of the great figures of his day, who baptized St Augustine of Hippo, and with St Augustine is one of the four Latin Doctors often depicted in art (the others being St Jerome and St Gregory the Great).

Not only are the bones the right age for St Ambrose, but they display the poorly-healed broken collarbone which, as his letters attest, troubled St Ambrose for many years. They are, so far as science can speak on the subject, authentic. 

Contrary to the wise-acres who for centuries have been casting doubt on the genuineness of the relics venerated by Catholics, this kind of scientific vindication keeps happening. The Holy Chalice of Valencia, according to tradition used at the Last Supper, was created (from agate) using techniques unique to the time of Our Lord’s life and earlier. The Holy Thorn of Andria, said to be from the Crown of Thorns and to bleed when Good Friday falls on 25th March, did so again under the cold gaze of scientific instruments in 2016. If these are the products of medieval forgers, those chaps certainly knew a thing or two.

It shouldn’t be surprising that relics of all kinds should have been carefully preserved from the earliest centuries, even if some will inevitably have been lost or destroyed. While the cult of relics created an incentive for unscrupulous forgers, ecclesiastical authorities were equally concerned not to be hoodwinked. Over the centuries much historical research has been done on the provenance of relics, and in many cases the relics themselves have provided supernatural evidence of their veracity, through their role in miracles. Today Catholics can be confident that officially authenticated relics are the real thing.

Like all the Church’s sacramentals (as opposed to Sacraments), relics they can be instrumental in bringing us grace by their stimulation of pious sentiments. This gives rise to one paradoxical response to the debate about the genuineness of relics, which is to say that it doesn’t matter. Similarly—this school of thought says—it is neither necessary nor appropriate to conduct scientific investigations of putative miraculous healings. What is important in either case is their effect on the Faithful: the stimulation of wonder, gratitude, and faith. 

However, those responses would not be appropriate if the miracle or relic were not genuine. One cannot say that a bone found in a butcher’s shop last week helps us in a special way to remember a saint from distant centuries, or that a headache cured by an aspirin allows us to experience God’s personal intervention into the usual order of nature for our benefit.

Sacramentals, which include blessed objects and blessings themselves, have an important place in the life of the Church in part precisely because they are not Sacraments. In his Autobiography of a Hunted Priest, Fr John Gerard SJ, who ministered to English Catholics under severe persecution, tells the story of a Catholic courtier who came to him for Confession. As was his usual custom with those who had been away from Confession for many years, Gerard advised him to spend a day or two preparing for this sacrament. The courtier revealed, however, that he wanted a speedy Confession because he had undertaken to fight a duel, upon which, he believed, his honor depended.

Gerard was horrified, and, of course, sacramental absolution was out of the question while the courtier maintained this intention. It was, in fact, the situation familiar to us today of a man debarred from the sacraments. Gerard did not simply abandon him to his fate, however, and among other things he gave him a relic which he could wear round his neck. It is easy to see how this would be a reminder and stimulus for a man in this wretched situation, to accept the actual graces God is always willing to pour out on sinners. Without fighting the duel, the man repented, returned to Gerard, made his Confession, and received Holy Communion.

If we today live in a Church where the state of mortal sin is common, where for many people sinful ways of life have become difficult to escape, and where the Sacrament of Confession is neglected, we should be especially grateful for the Sacramentals. We should establish in our parishes frequent opportunities to venerate relics; we should have blessed palms and blessed sacred images in our homes; we should wear Scapulars and medals; and we should take seriously priestly, episcopal, and papal blessings when the opportunity for them arises. They can be the means, not only for the good to become more fervent, but for sinners to find the grace of repentance.

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Joseph Shaw

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Dr Joseph Shaw has a Doctorate in Philosophy from Oxford University, where he also gained a first degree in Politics and Philosophy and a graduate Diploma in Theology. He has published on Ethics and Philosophy of Religion and has edited a forthcoming book on the liturgy: The Case for Liturgical Restoration: Una Voce Position Papers on the Extraordinary Form (Angelico Press). He is the Chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales and Secretary of Una Voce International. He teaches Philosophy in Oxford University and lives nearby with his wife and eight children.