You can’t miss seeing relics in Rome.
Devotion to relics is waning in the church today as far as I can judge. In the western world, influenced as we are by scientific thinking, we find them puzzling. Rome, the center of the Roman Catholic Church, is filled with them.
Most of the churches we are going to, like St. Peter’s and St.Paul Outside the Walls, were built to house them. So why are bones of saints and relics of the mysteries of the life of Jesus, like relics of the cross in St. Peter’s Basilica and Holy Cross in Jerusalem, the holy stairs at the Scala Sancta, St. Peter’s chains in the church of St. Peter in Chains, the crib from Bethlehem at St. Mary Major, there in the first place?.
The cult of relics flourished when people believed in an “enchanted world,” to use a phrase from Charles Taylor, where heaven and earth were close together and God was seen as actively engaged in nature and history.
Our western world believed in an enchanted world until the time of the Enlightenment in the 17th century, when scientific thinking began to emerge. From then on, religion came under the microscope of science and reason more and more.
You can see an enchanted world in the psalms. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” (Ps.18) God is “maker of heaven and earth, the seas and all that is in them.” (Ps.146) God is savior as well as creator: “The Lord sets prisoners free; the Lord gives sight to the blind…The Lord protects the stranger, sustains the widow and orphan, but thwarts the way of the wicked.” (Ps. 146) He “dwells in a holy temple” and they are happy who find him there. (Psalm 84) He “takes delight in his people.” (Ps.149)
God is close to creation and is its loving savior, these prayers say. God is not distant, as many followers of the Enlightenment came to believe, or unknown as many might say today. According to Christian belief, God is present in our world, as Jews believe, but he reveals himself now in Jesus Christ, his Son.
The sacraments of the Church–Baptism, Confirmation, the Holy Eucharist, etc..– are special signs of God’s abiding presence in our world. They’re signs of Christ who remains with us from birth till death, and leads us to a kingdom that will come.
Relics are part of the sacramental dispensation. Relics of the saints, like those of Peter and Paul, are reminders that God works in people on earth. Now they see him face to face, yet “from their place in heaven they guide us still.” They are part of a communion of saints; even now drawing us into God’s loving friendship.
Similarly, relics of mysteries like his cross and his birth are sensible reminders that the great mysteries of Christ abide with us too.
One danger of an “enchanted world,” a world where God is close, is that people misuse its powers for their own selfish purposes and not as aids to salvation. The abuse of relics became particularly acute in the 15th century when they were bought and sold and used superstitiously. A slide to magical thinking began.
At the time, voices within the church condemned the abuse of relics, but church authority didn’t move quickly enough to stamp out the abuse–partially because they benefited economically from it themselves.
A major attack came from Martin Luther and other Protestant reformers, who not only condemned the abuse of relics for endangering faith, but also called for their elimination altogether.
In its own movement of reform, the Catholic Church upheld the practice of honoring the relics, but laid down laws governing their use. They are not magical objects that give us power over things, but holy signs calling for conversion and humble recognition of an all-powerful God.
A second attack on relics followed the scientific revolution that began in the 17th century. Rationalist scholars, focusing on the Christian faith, questioned the historicity of Jesus himself and the gospels. Since relics were part of church belief and practice, they also came under scientific scrutiny. If they didn’t pass the test of science, they were rejected.
Because of religious and scientific questions about relics, some avoid them and turn to art and architecture instead. But don’t miss the relics. They’re important; you can’t understand the churches without them.