3 November 2015

Thursday, November 5, is the Feast of the Holy Relics

Last week, at S Edmund's College Ware, members of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy (more about this tomorrow), had the privilege of venerating the large relic which is enshrined there. It was sent as a gift to Ware from Pontigny and consists of a femur of S Edmund Rich of Abingdon, Archbishop of Canterbury. I found this a moving taster for his Festival ({Double of the}First Class within the Portsmouth Diocese) to be kept on the 16th of this month. But this Thursday's feast also serves to bring such Relics vividly back to mind; it is the Festival of All the Holy Relics preserved in our churches.

What a wholesome liturgical instinct this festival represents. In the medieval English rites, it tried out various dates; May 22 or the Monday after the Ascension at Exeter; the Sunday after the Translation of S Thomas (July 7) at Hereford and Sarum - although Sarum notes that 'nuper' it occupied the Octave Day of our Lady's Nativity, with an appropriate Collect "Grant we beseech thee Almighty God, that the merits may protect us of the holy Mother of God and Ever Virgin Mary and of thy Saints whose relics are kept in this church ...". The traditional Benedictine rite keeps this festival on May 13, presumably a learned allusion to the Dedication of the Pantheon in Rome, upon this day, as the Church of Sancta Maria ad Martyres. Before the reforms of S Pius X, this festival was to be found among the Masses For Some Places on October 26, or on the Last Sunday of October.

After S Pius X, the Feast of the Relics settled, most appropriately, onto a day within the Octave of All Saints, November 5, where it was observed by papal indult in certain places (often as a Greater Double), including here in Oxford. The colour to be used is red. This is consistent with the fact that the Office is the Common of Many Martyrs, despite the fact that not all the Saints whose relics we this day venerate were martyred. Perhaps we may relate this usage to the primitive notion that the Martyrs are the prototypical saints; that the unmartyred sancti et sanctae in a sense just piggy-back along upon the martyrs.

The Sacred Congregation of Rites sometimes felt tempted to turn to Byzantine sources to get a richer mixture than one always finds in formal Western texts (Sessio xxv of Trent is sound enough on the relics but a trifle sober). So the proper lections at Mattins for this feast are taken from that always-reliable Doctor of the Church S John of Damascus (Fr Eric Mascall once observed the propensity of Roman liturgists to resort to Eastern sources whenever they needed to say something 'extreme'). "For since Life itself and the Author of Life was numbered among the dead, we do not call those who finished their last day in the hope of Resurrection and of faith in Him 'Dead'. For how can a dead body utter miracles? Through relics the devils are cast out, diseases sent fleeing, the sick healed, the blind see ..." etc. etc.. The Collect is a fine composition which likewise sees the miracles performed through the relics of Saints as pledges of the Resurrection: Increase in us O Lord our faith in the Resurrection, who in the relics of thy Saints dost perform marvellous works: and make us partakers of the immortal glory of which our veneration of their ashes [cineres] is a pledge.

This celebration disappeared from Church life in the post-Conciliar period, for presumably the same reasons that at the same time caused the Jesuits, who then occupied the Church of S Aloysius in this City, to have a massive bonfire of all the relics and reliquaries in their splendid Relics Chapel (Fr Bertram's elegant booklet about those events reminds one uncannily of the similar things which happened throughout England in the late 1540s ... mercifully, the gracious spirit of S Philip Neri has now restored lost glories by filling the Alyoggers Relics Chapel with a grand new collection).

Thursday's feast is, in my view, rich in themes for evangelical preaching and teaching, and ripe for wider revival. It teaches the goodness of material things against a false 'spiritualism'; it preaches the ultimately indissoluble link between Body and Soul against the sub-Christian notion that only the soul really matters; it proclaims the transforming eschatological glory which will clothe this perishable with what is imperishable, and this mortal with what is immortal, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.


Palam├Ęde de Charlus said...

The late Hartwell de la Garde Grissell must be turning in his grave (where is it, I wonder?) at the fate of his fine relic collection. Sometimes the action of Jesuits is most perplexing.

Grumpy Beggar said...

Thankyou Padre.
This post struck a personal chord: My home parish is St.Edmund of Canterbury , Beaconsfield, QC . Some years ago , we were granted a portion of these same relics of St.Edmund which now lay safely embedded in our altar. Saint Edmund Rich of Abingdon, Archbishop of Canterbury,therefore occupies a special intercessory place in each Holy Mass offered daily at this particular altar.

God bless you Fr. H.

Kathleen1031 said...

Beautiful post Father, thank you. The veneration of relics is such a unique aspect of Catholicism, and I admit I have a hard time explaining it to others. There is so much to be "rediscovered" and taught anew.
Right now, as the relics of St. Maria Goretti are in the US, we are relying on her intercession for three loved ones.
The idea of a bonfire of relics is sobering. How is it the Jesuits thrive and flourish?

Ben Whitworth said...

The Feast of Relics (greater double) was on October 13 in the pre-Reformation Use of Nidaros.

KaeseEs said...


I do not believe the Jesuits could accurately be described as 'thriving' nor 'flourishing'. See http://nineteensixty-four.blogspot.com/2015/01/by-numbers-jesuit-demography.html ; the final graph more or less tells the tale. See also http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-2Ufhl1Hxu-c/U6VgIy8X_qI/AAAAAAAAPd0/1SHzvT--Emo/s1600/jesuit1.jpg (total number of Jesuits worldwide over the last century or so; the inflection point is exactly where you expect it to be).

Kathleen1031 said...

oh. thank you KaeseEs. I take it they are in decline. Seems better for us, I'm afraid.

Banshee said...

I was just reading that a Spanish regional council, Zaragoza II (in AD 592), had a canon dealing with the transfer of Arian churches' relics to Catholic ones. Basically, they ordered that all relics held by Arian churches be tested by fire, with any relics that miraculously survived being deemed to be true ones.

Spanish councils made some odd canons....