Friday, 12 January 2018

Relic Documents

The arm of St. Francis Xavier arrived in Toronto today as part of a 15-city Canadian visit. We got a sneak peek at the relic this morning at St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica.

ARCAT Staff photo

D'Arcy Murphy, Guardian for the St. Francis Xavier relic during its time in Canada, polishes the reliquary at St. Michael's Cathedral Basilica this morning before public veneration begins.  The relic will be in the archdiocese this weekend as part of its Canadian tour. The 500-year old forearm rarely leaves Rome.

St. Francis Xavier is one of the great missionary saints of the Church and co-founder of the Jesuit order. This arm - an incorrupt, first-class relic - is venerated as one that blessed and baptized an estimated 100,000 converts. It is rare to see such a large relic outside of a saint's cult site; most first-class relics contained within church altars and reliquaries are tiny fragments of bone or flesh.

The famous relic of St. Francis Xavier will be in the Archdiocese of Toronto for three days, hosted at St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica (Jan. 12), St. Francis Xavier Church, Mississauga (Jan. 13) and Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, Toronto (January 14). More information about the visit and a full schedule of events can be found at:

For a firsthand account one person's encounter with this remarkable relic, read this CBC article by our colleague, Wanita Bates, from the Presentation Congregation Archives in St. John’s, NL.

Authenticating Relics
Relics have been venerated by the faithful since the earliest days of Christianity and are known for their association with healing and other miracles. Every Catholic church has a relic sealed in its altar as a sign of honour to the saints.This practice evokes a time when Mass was celebrated in secret, over the tombs of martyrs.

Photo courtesy of Catholic Christian Outreach

Regardless of the type of reliquary encasing the relic, it must be sealed with string or wire threaded through the container and stamped with wax, to prove it has not been tampered with.
Notice the seal on the acrylic reliquary containing the arm of St. Francis Xavier, above. 

A diocese may acquire relics directly from the Holy See, from a religious community, or from the cult site where the saint’s body is located. The issuing authority is responsible for securing the relic in a reliquary - often a small metal container known as a theca - with string or wire and a wax seal. The issuer also creates an accompanying relic document that must include the following elements:
  1. The name and authority of the person issuing the relic (either of a bishop, of a religious superior, or of a postulator)
  2. The crimped or stamped seal of the issuer and the date of sealing
  3. The signature of the issuer
  4. A description of contents: type of particle (which determines the relic's class) and name of saint.
  5. The shape of the theca (round, oval, cross shaped, etc.)
At the archives, we house a small collection of relics on behalf of the chancery, which may be distributed to parishes for dedicating a new altar, or for displaying in devotional reliquaries. In order to be considered fit for distribution, the relic's authenticity and integrity must be verified. We do this by checking that the wax and string of the reliquary are intact and that the seal impressed in the wax matches that on the relic document. The description of the relic and its container must also match the actual relic.

First-class relic of St. Catherine Labouré and accompanying relic document, Relics Special Collection

This relic is a particle from the bones (ex ossibus) of St. Catherine Labouré who was a member of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul. The document was issued by the superior general of the Congregation of the Mission in 1953.  The string threaded through the theca is intact and the wax seal matches the stamp on the document.
Red wax is a good indicator of authenticity because the colour fades with age at a regular rate, it always holds the shape of the seal, and it becomes brittle and tamper-proof immediately upon cooling.

First-class relic of St. Maria Goretti and accompanying relic document, Relics Special Collection

This relic is a particle from the bones (ex ossibus) of St. Maria Goretti, virgin martyr, issued by her postulator, Maurus ab Immaculata, and enclosed in a round metal theca. A postulator is one who collects evidence and presents a case for the canonization or beatification of a person.

First- and second-class relics of St. Teresa of the Infant Jesus and accompanying relic document, Relics Special Collection

These three relics are particles from the bones (ex ossibus), hair (ex capillis) and garment (ex veste) of St. Teresa of the Infant Jesus, virgin martyr, issued by her postulator in 1929. 
The bone and hair fragments are considered first-class relics because they come from the body of the saint; the garment is a second-class relic, from an object the saint personally owned. Also included in this category are instruments used to inflict death on a martyr.
Third-class relics are those items that a saint touched or that have been touched to a first-class relic of a saint. 

As an archivist in a modern, corporate archives, there is something very gratifying about having to rely on wax seals and Latin records to serve contemporary needs!

To learn more about the role of relics in the evangelization of the Church, visit Treasures of the Church.

Read our previous post about relics in Archiving Altar Stones.

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