ROME, 5 DEC. 2017 (ZENIT) Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Is it allowed to put relics of saints in a museum? — T.C., Quezon City, Philippines
A: We would first need to examine the overall Church teachings regarding the veneration of relics.
The Council of Trent, answering the Protestant criticism of their veneration, articulated this strong response in its 1563 decree on the Invocation, Veneration, and Relics of the Saints and Sacred Images:
“The holy Synod enjoins on all bishops, and others who sustain the office and charge of teaching, that, agreeably to the usage of the Catholic and Apostolic Church, received from the primitive times of the Christian religion, and agreeably to the consent of the holy Fathers, and to the decrees of sacred Councils, they especially instruct the faithful diligently concerning the intercession and invocation of saints; the honor (paid) to relics; and the legitimate use of images: teaching them, that the saints, who reign together with Christ, offer up their own prayers to God for men; that it is good and useful suppliantly to invoke them, and to have recourse to their prayers, aid, (and) help for obtaining benefits from God, through His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who is our alone Redeemer and Savior; but that they think impiously, who deny that the saints, who enjoy eternal happiness in heaven, are to be invocated; or who assert either that they do not pray for men; or, that the invocation of them to pray for each of us even in particular, is idolatry; or, that it is repugnant to the word of God; and is opposed to the honor of the one mediator of God and men, Christ Jesus; or, that it is foolish to supplicate, vocally, or mentally, those who reign in heaven.
“Also, that the holy bodies of holy martyrs, and of others now living with Christ — which bodies were the living members of Christ, and the temple of the Holy Ghost, and which are by Him to be raised unto eternal life, and to be glorified — are to be venerated by the faithful; through which (bodies) many benefits are bestowed by God on men; so that they who affirm that veneration and honor are not due to the relics of saints; or, that these, and other sacred monuments, are uselessly honored by the faithful; and that the places dedicated to the memories of the saints are in vain visited with the view of obtaining their aid; are wholly to be condemned, as the Church has already long since condemned, and now also condemns them [Denzinger 1821-1822].”
This teaching, as well as other laws, are enshrined in canon law:
“Canon 1186. To foster the sanctification of the people of God, the Church commends to the special and filial reverence of the Christian faithful the Blessed Mary ever Virgin, Mother of God, whom Christ established as the mother of all people, and promotes the true and authentic veneration of the other saints whose example instructs the Christian faithful and whose intercession sustains them.
“Canon 1187. It is permitted to reverence through public veneration only those servants of God whom the authority of the Church has recorded in the list of the saints or the blessed.
“Canon 1188. The practice of displaying sacred images in churches for the reverence of the faithful is to remain in effect. Nevertheless, they are to be exhibited in moderate number and in suitable order so that the Christian people are not confused, nor occasion given for inappropriate devotion.
“Canon 1189. If they are in need of repair, precious images, that is, those distinguished by age, art, or veneration, which are exhibited in churches or oratories for the reverence of the faithful, are never to be restored without the written permission of the ordinary; he is to consult experts before he grants permission.
“Canon 1190. §1. It is absolutely forbidden to sell sacred relics.
“§2. Relics of great significance and other relics honored with great reverence by the people cannot be alienated validly in any manner or transferred permanently without the permission of the Apostolic See.
“§3. The prescript of §2 is valid also for images which are honored in some church with great reverence by the people.”
Both teaching and law are summarized in the Directory of Popular Piety and the Liturgy:
“The Relics of the Saints
“236. The Second Vatican Council recalls that ‘the Saints have been traditionally honored in the Church, and their authentic relics and images held in veneration.’ The term ‘relics of the Saints’ principally signifies the bodies — or notable parts of the bodies — of the Saints who, as distinguished members of Christ’s mystical Body and as Temples of the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Cor 3, 16; 6, 19; 2 Cor 6, 16) in virtue of their heroic sanctity, now dwell in Heaven, but who once lived on earth. Objects which belonged to the Saints, such as personal objects, clothes, and manuscripts are also considered relics, as are objects which have touched their bodies or tombs such as oils, cloths, and images.
“237. The Missale Romanum reaffirms the validity ‘of placing the relics of the Saints under an altar that is to be dedicated, even when not those of the martyrs.’ This usage signifies that the sacrifice of the members has its origin in the Sacrifice of the altar, as well as symbolizing the communion with the Sacrifice of Christ of the entire Church, which is called to witness, even to the point of death, fidelity to her Lord and Spouse.
“Many popular usages have been associated with this eminently liturgical cultic expression. The faithful deeply revere the relics of the Saints. An adequate pastoral instruction of the faithful about the use of relics will not overlook:
“— ensuring the authenticity of the relics exposed for the veneration of the faithful; where doubtful relics have been exposed for the veneration of the faithful, they should be discreetly withdrawn with due pastoral prudence;
“— preventing undue dispersal of relics into small pieces, since such practice is not consonant with due respect for the human body; the liturgical norms stipulate that relics must be “of a sufficient size as make clear that they are parts of the human body”;
“— admonishing the faithful to resist the temptation to form collections of relics; in the past, this practice has had some deplorable consequences;
“— preventing any possibility of fraud, trafficking, or superstition.
“The various forms of popular veneration of the relics of the Saints, such as kissing, decorations with lights and flowers, bearing them in processions, in no way exclude the possibility of taking the relics of the Saints to the sick and dying, to comfort them or use the intercession of the Saint to ask for healing. Such should be conducted with great dignity and be motivated by faith. The relics of the Saints should not be exposed on the mensa of the altar since this is reserved for the Body and Blood of the King of Martyrs.”
From all this I think it is clear that the Church considers that the proper place for the veneration and conservation of relics is within the precincts of the church itself, either under altars, in proper reliquaries, or, in cases that a church has many relics, in a special reliquary chapel within the church or sacristy.
Under normal circumstances, relics should not be placed in museums.
However, some reliquaries are exposed to the faithful only on certain major feasts. If the reliquary in such cases is also an important work of art, it is conceivable that it could be habitually placed in a diocesan museum or treasury for safekeeping along with other sacred objects.
Reliquaries are, of course, found in many major world museums as objects of medieval craftsmanship and artistry. Ideally, if thus exposed, they should be without the relic, although in some cases it proves impossible to remove it without causing irreparable damage.
There is little that the Church can do in such cases as she is not usually the legal owner of such reliquaries. She can and does do all that is possible to limit any trafficking in the present.
The best we can hope for is that those who visit the museum develop an appreciation of the faith that produced such artwork and perhaps learn something of the witness of the saint it enshrines.