Isn’t that a bit… yuck?

Relics. What's that about? I can understand second-class relics. In my parish we have a piece of the wooden cross worn by St Mary of the Cross MacKillop and I often stop and look at it. I feel a certain affinity with her because she was a teacher too, she struggled with many of the things I struggle with and she spent some time here in my parish area. When I see the relic, it helps me remember that she was a real person, not just some saintly, angelic being who was perfect.

But, at the recent canonisation of Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII they had a vial of John Paul's blood and… a piece of John XXIII's skin. I'm sorry… the blood, OK, we've all seen a vial of blood, but a piece of skin? Isn't that a bit, well, yuck? Maybe the intention is the same as the piece of Mary MacKillop's cross – to remind us that these were merely men who accomplished great things. But who wants to see a piece of skin???

And how did they get these relics? The blood – did they take it from him when he was still alive and keep it in case they needed it in the future? Or did they take it from his dead body? And as for how they got the skin, I don't even want to contemplate that.

And what's the point, when we actually have both of their bodies at the Vatican? Surely we don't need relics if we have the body? Or will these be sent across the world to other countries? I remember when the relics of St Therese came to NZ – even that feels slightly different. Honouring someone's remains or ashes feels OK to me – but cutting off a piece of their skin? I don't know, that actually feels like dishonouring them.

Help me out readers, I just don't get it.

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    Comments: 15

    1. John Whyte June 11, 2014 at 1:16 pm

      As a story, 

      Josemaria (the founder of Opus Dei) had all his teeth removed and dentures installed.  He took the teeth back to the office in a jar, showed them off and binned them.  

      His secretary then took the jar and hid it in the closet for years believing him to be a saint so that they would be relics.  

      I don't get it either.  

    2. IAGHW June 11, 2014 at 1:31 pm
    3. Rubyshine June 11, 2014 at 3:12 pm

      I've never thought about this before. I grew up in a parish that had a fragment of bone of our parish's saint, so it was just one of those things you grow up with that seems completely normal.

      In hindsight, yeah a little strange. Thanks for that link IAGHW, it helps makes sense of it.

    4. Teresina June 11, 2014 at 3:20 pm

      Actually, a lot of religions through the ages have had relics of people they venerated or regarded  highly.  The body of St John 23rd is incorrupt (through embalming rather than miraculous means I understand) so I imagine that is how they got the sliver of skin.  As they had the vile of blood of St John Paul The Great no doubt it was to have something tangible of him as well at the canonisation.  The following explains how relics have been venerated from earliest of times and miracles have often been observed to occur from the relics of many of the saints:

      "One of the earliest sources that purports to show the efficacy of relics is found in 2 Kings 13:20–21:

      20 Elisha died and was buried. Now Moabite raiders used to enter the country every spring. 21 Once while some Israelites were burying a man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders; so they threw the man's body into Elisha's tomb. When the body touched Elisha's bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet. (NIV)

      Also cited is the veneration of Polycarp's relics recorded in the Martyrdom of Polycarp (written 150–160 AD).[13] With regard to relics that are objects, an often cited passage is Acts 19:11–12, which says that Paul's handkerchiefs were imbued by God with healing power.

      The practice of venerating relics seems to have been taken for granted by writers like Augustine, St. AmbroseGregory of Nyssa, St. Chrysostom, and St. Gregory Nazianzen. Dom Bernardo Cignitti, O.S.B., wrote, “…[T]he remains of certain dead are surrounded with special care and veneration. This is because the mortal remains of the deceased are associated in some manner with the holiness of their souls which await reunion with their bodies in the resurrection.” [14] Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) pointed out that it was natural that people should treasure what is associated with the dead, much like the personal effects of a relative.[15] In an interview with Catholic News Service, Fr. Mario Conte, executive editor of the Messenger of St. Anthony magazine in Padua, Italy, said, "Saints' relics help people overcome the abstract and make a connection with the holy. …Saints do not perform miracles. Only God performs miracles, but saints are intercessors."

    5. Dominican June 11, 2014 at 5:56 pm

      I have seen the head of St Oliver Plunkett in St Peters Catholic Church Drogheda Eire.  He gave his life for Christ's Church at Tyburn.  Yes, it's gruesome but a salutory reminder of tough times for our forebears and the great love they had for Christ and His Church. Something many of us fail to appreciate today I think.

    6. banter June 11, 2014 at 6:23 pm

      I think it's gross.  

    7. banter June 11, 2014 at 6:32 pm

      I also thought exhuming the body of bishop pompallier to brings his remains back to NZ was nothing short of astonishing.  Parading and displaying his remains was equally bizarre. What kind of people traipse around after a corpse.  Or worse take special care and reverence to make pilgrimage to see slithers and slices of those considered saints.  Yeah na this isn't my cup of tea.  

      I have the same opinion of viewing the bodies of those who after recently died.  Funeral parlours frequently do this as the families request it.  Why view the dead body?  They have gone.  In fact, there could be an argument that it displays a very uncatholic pagan sort of practise.  At one minute we are professing that we believe in life after death.  The next minute we can't let go of their earthly remains.  Mixed message to the world.

      Let the dead be dead.

    8. Teresina June 11, 2014 at 8:26 pm

      Banter, unfortunately, I think you are missing the point – we're not talking about any old body – we're talking about the body of a saint which will one day be raised to glory.  The veneration of relics has a long, long history in the Church and I have never heard such comments made before that have come from you and M&M.  It's not a case of "we can't let go of their earthly remains" it is that many graces and benefits are wrought through the veneration of them.  If you read this on New Advent you may begin to understand what the Church teaches in respect of relics – in fact, I don't think it should be referred to as "ugh" or pagan – not when you hear what Trent said, St Thomas Aquinas, etc:

    9. Teresina June 11, 2014 at 8:31 pm

      What Trent says on the veneration of relics:

      "The holy council commands all bishops and others who hold the office of teaching and have charge of the <cura animarum>, that in accordance with the usage of the Catholic and Apostolic Church, received from the primitive times of the Christian religion, and with the unanimous teaching of the holy Fathers and the decrees of sacred councils, they above all instruct the faithful diligently in matters relating to intercession and invocation of the saints, the veneration of relics, and the legitimate use of images, teaching them that the saints who reign together with Christ offer up their prayers to God for men, that it is good and beneficial suppliantly to invoke them and to have recourse to their prayers, assistance and support in order to obtain favors from God through His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who alone is our redeemer and savior;1 and that they think impiously who deny that the saints who enjoy eternal happiness in heaven are to be invoked, or who assert that they do not pray for men, or that our invocation of them to pray for each of us individually is idolatry, or that it is opposed to the word of God and inconsistent with the honor of the one mediator of God and men, Jesus Christ,2 or that it is foolish to pray vocally or mentally to those who reign in heaven. Also, that the holy bodies of the holy martyrs and of others living with Christ, which were the living members of Christ and the temple the Holy Ghost,3 to be awakened by Him to eternal life and to be glorified, are to be venerated by the faithful,4 through which many benefits are bestowed by God on men, so that those who maintain that veneration and honor are not due to the relics of the saints, or that these and other memorials are honored by the faithful without profit, and that the places dedicated to the memory of the saints for the purpose of obtaining their aid are visited in vain, are to be utterly condemned, as the Church has already long since condemned and now again condemns them. Moreover, that the images of Christ, of the Virgin Mother of God, and of the other saints are to be placed and retained especially in the churches, and that due honor and veneration is to be given them; not, however, that any divinity or virtue is believed to be in them by reason of which they are to be venerated, or that something is to be asked of them, or that trust is to be placed in images, as was done of old by the Gentiles who placed their hope in idols;5 but because the honor which is shown them is referred to the prototypes which they represent, so that by means of the images which we kiss and before which we uncover the head and prostrate ourselves, we adore Christ and venerate the saints whose likeness they bear. That is what was defined by the decrees of the councils, especially of the Second Council of Nicaea,6 against the opponents of images."

    10. Don the Kiwi June 11, 2014 at 10:07 pm


      Are you aware that all altars in the catholic Church have an Altar Stone? These are usually small square stones, about 200 mm square and about 25 mm thick, and contain the bones of one or more saints. Priests who travel to outlying areas carry with them an Altar Cloth, in place of an altar stone, which has a saint's relic sewn into a part of the cloth.

      This has been the practice since the earliest days of the Church, and grew strongly from the days of the catacombs. Remember that, as Teresina points out, our bodies will be resurrected on That Day. The bodies of baptised Christians are "temples of the Holy Spirit" – that is why we reverence a dead body so much, and give requiem Masses to our faithful departed.

      This so called "YukFactor" is only a modern PC invention, that has happened along with the feminisation of the Church.. Time to harden up and get staunch again. :-)

    11. Don the Kiwi June 12, 2014 at 9:07 am


      Not all altars nowadays have altar stones, but pre Vatican II they did. And as far as I know, not all priests have an altar cloth containing a relic. But it was always the case back in the day.

    12. bamac June 12, 2014 at 10:31 am

      Just something else we have lost Don,

      Mrs Mac

    13. Dominican June 12, 2014 at 10:57 am

      I did feel that TV cameras filming the remains of Bishop Pompallier was "yuk".  It devalued the sacred  and turned the whole thing into a spectator sport.  Veneration didn't seem to get  a look in and a connection with the holy was absent.


    14. Teresina June 12, 2014 at 12:18 pm

      Dominican, I didn't see the filming of the exhumation of Bishop Pompellier, but you have to remember that these things are filmed not to be a spectator sport but to show any miracle that may have occurred in the case where the body is found to be incorrupt, as has been found with some saints.  Here is the exhumation of Padre Pio whose body was found to be incorrupt.  These things are signs from God for the athiest and agnostic and confirmation that Padre Pio was indeed a saint (if confirmation was ever needed of course). The video of his exhumation below is quite lovely:

      In years gone by it was common to have the body of a loved one "in the parlour" for several days before a funeral and people would pay their respects to the deceased.  When I was at college the nuns who died were placed in open coffins in the chapel and so you got used to seeing someone who had died and it wasn't frightening.

      I think like Don that it is this age that we live in where beauty and youth are promoted and nobody wants to see a dead body, perhaps because it reminds us of our own mortality. 

      The first incorruptible was St Cecilia who is remembered in the Mass.  Her body was exhumed twice and found exactly as depicted (and sworn to) by the sculpter – see her outstretched fingers signifying the trinity three in one – the belief that she died for:

      This sculpture represents how her body was found after exhumation:

      You can read about her here:

      The beautiful body of St Bernadette:


    15. Teresina June 12, 2014 at 12:23 pm

      What the sculptor said of St Cecilia:

       Stefano Maderno(1566-1636), who created the fountains in St Peter's Piazza, was commissioned to sculpt what he saw. His inscription says: "Behold the body of the most holy virgin, Cecilia, whom I myself saw lying uncorrupt in her tomb. I have in this marble expressed for thee the same saint in the very same posture and body."

      She is shown lying on her right side with her head facing downwards and with a scarf over her hair. Both her arms are extended towards her knees and the fingers of the right hand are also extended. The body was found in the position represented by the sculptor.