It's time to bring relics back to the Catholic Church.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
Oct. 20 2009 12:08 PM

The Bone Collectors

It's time to bring relics back to the Catholic Church.

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Broomer's relics usually come primarily from obscure saints—especially early martyrs—because they're more likely to be authentic. The superstar saints—St. Francis of Assisi, St. Catherine of Siena—are the most counterfeited. But that doesn't mean pious pieces of the most precious individuals in Christianity haven't come through her door: the Virgin Mary's breast milk, baby Jesus' swaddling clothes, a thorn from the Crown of Thorns, a sliver of wood from Christ's manger, a strand of the Virgin Mary's hair, Joseph's walking stick, and various parts of the Apostles.

Relics are not just body parts. Saints also had possessions. They wore clothes and jewelry. They touched things. Eventually, the Catholic Church put in place a system for classifying relics: A first-class relic was a body part of a saint; a second-class relic was a saint's possession; a third-class relic was an object that had touched a first-class relic; and a fourth-class relic—the least valuable but the easiest to produce—was an object that had touched a second-class relic.

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Though holy relics may still have their place in modern spirituality, they represent a time when saints were posthumous medieval rock stars, pilgrims their devout groupies and monks their roadies. In medieval Europe, the quest for salvation pervaded every breath and movement and thought of the devout. For the faithful, praying to a saint's relic was like a direct line to saints who acted as intercessors for God, VIP residents of heaven who could cause miracles and help prayers be answered. The faithful often prayed at saints' tombs or in front of their relics displayed inside churches. But there were also private relic collections in the Middle Ages. Charlemagne, as pious as he was powerful, had a vast collection of relics (including, some say, the holy foreskin). Charles IV, the 14th-century Holy Roman emperor, held an annual relics show at his home base in Prague to show off his collection of curios (of which the pièce de résistance was the breast of Mary Magdalene). A couple of centuries later, Renaissance Prince Albrecht of Brandenburg had a stock of saintly remains so huge that a tireless pilgrim could have accrued a remission from purgatory of 39,245,120 years.

Today Broomer has a roster of regular clients, many of whom are not princes or potentates; they're mostly middle class, male, and gay. Some attended seminary before they dropped out of the church or were intentionally scorned. Others belong to the clergy or are officially connected to the church.

One of those clients in the latter category is the Rev. Paul Halovatch, a chaplain in Connecticut, who has been collecting relics for 30 years. Among his 100 or so holy curios are a piece of the post Christ was whipped on, a chunk of Christ's crib, and 10 pieces of the True Cross. He'll bring out a relic of a saint on that saint's feast day and bless people. He purchases relics from Broomer in an attempt to "rescue" them from falling into the wrong hands, which he claims they can easily do.

Perhaps churches will stop shedding their collections—and start building them back up. One small church in Iowa, St. Donatus, recently moved a relic from the church museum to an altar in a side chapel in the church, back in the place where it was originally intended. Which means there's at least one church I can now walk into and ask what relic they have at the altar, and I'll get more than just a shrug.