Faith made tangible: Religious relics sacred to the Catholic faith

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Atlanta Archdiocese receives relic of Blessed Carlo Acuti, who may one day be declared a saint

Relics may be viewed by some non-Catholics as curiosities, but for many Roman Catholics and orthodox believers around the world they are held in great reverence.

“It’s a tangible thing in our faith,” said Donal Noonan, the director of music ministries at the Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Atlanta. “It’s almost like you are witnessing the divine. It brings me to a place of wonder in my faith.”

Whenever he sees a sacred relic, he thinks about “the saint it belonged to, the holiness of that saint and the connection of that saint to God. It brings me to a place of prayer.”

Relics can range from bone, blood and bits of skin taken from a saint’s body to items that a saint once touched.

Archbishop Gregory J. Hartmayer recently returned from Italy with a relic — a small bit of skin — of Blessed Carlo Acutis, an Italian who died of leukemia in October 2006 at age 15. Experts say Acutis, who cared for the marginalized and weak, might one day be canonized as a saint.

On Oct. 12, 2013, according to Hartmayer, there was a miraculous healing of a four-year-old boy, which was attributed to the intercession of Blessed Carlo. Then in 2020, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis had formally recognized that healing.

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Plans call for the relic of Acutis, which is kept in an elaborate silver reliquary with blue stones, to have a permanent home at the Cathedral of Christ the King on Peachtree Road.

The veneration of relics has been a tradition in the Roman Catholic faith since the martyrs of the first century, said Hartmayer. Relics, he said, enable the faithful to “feel the closeness to a person who has been declared by the Church to have lived a holy life.”

Relics come in three classes. First-class relics can be part of the physical body of a saint, such a tufts of hair, a droplet of blood or piece of skin. Second-class relics are an item that a saint owned. Most relics are extremely small.

Many, if not most, of the relics discovered in antiquity and the Middle Ages are difficult or impossible to verify,” said Joanne M. Pierce, professor emerita in the Department of Religious Studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts.

Some are clearly dubious: “There are several heads of St. John the Baptist, for example,” Pierce said.

The more “modern” the saint, the more likely it is that the relic is genuine or verifiable, she added.

Millions of pilgrims visit churches and sites around the world annually to pay reverence to the relics of saints and the beatified.

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Noonan, for instance, remembers as a boy going to see the severed head of St. Oliver Plunkett, the Irish archbishop who was martyred during a period of anti-Catholic persecution in 1681. It wasn’t until 1975 that he was canonized a saint.

As a child, a person may not understand the significance of such an exhibit, “But as you evolve, your faith evolves,” he said. “I suppose as you get older you start thinking about the life of the saint, what they went through, what brings them close to God and how you relate to them.”

Franciscan Deacon Nicholas Wolfla, delegate for religious at the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta and a canon lawyer, said, “People think we worship them, we don’t. We venerate them. We ask them to intercede on our behalf with God.”

No one knows how many churches in the archdiocese have relics or what they are. Some have been donated by parishioners, or bishops may get them from the Apolstolic office in the Vatican. Today, those relics must be kept in a sacred or public spaces like a chapel or church.

While in Italy, Hartmayer visited the Basilica of St. Francis where he met Bishop Domenico Sorrentino, the Bishop of Assisi and asked him if he could view the body of Blessed Carlo.

“I suddenly thought of asking the bishop if I could have a relic of Blessed Carlo. He told me ‘For an archbishop, it is possible,’” Hartmayer recounted.

“I never expected a first-class relic since they are relatively rare. It is a precious gift from the Bishop of Assisi.”

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta has dozens of relics inherited from the late Father Jack Druding after his death in 2011. Druding, founder of the ministry at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport spent decades collecting some 45 relics.

Encased in small glass or metal containers, the relics include a droplet of blood, a swath of material from the Virgin Mary’s veil and a fragment of wood from the manger where Jesus was born. Most were accompanied by certificates of authentication written in Latin.

The relics “document the faith of Catholics around the world,” said Angelique M. Richardson, director of Archives and Records for the archdiocese.

Relics are kept in several churches in metro Atlanta. There is a relic of St. Peter Benizi embedded in the altar of St. Philip Benizi Catholic Church in Jonesboro.

The Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers is home to more than 50 relics, which are housed in a secure spot in the chapel and are brought out on special occasions, such as All Saints Day, said Father Gerard Gross.

The relics include dust from the coffin of St. John of the Cross and a bone fragment of St. Raphael Arnáiz Barón, a Cistercian monk who was canonized in 2009.

Anna Lalonde of Covington is a cradle Catholic. Her grandparents had several relics, as did her parents, given to them over the years by various priests.

“It’s not like you own them,” said Lalonde. “You’re the guardians.


Classes of relics:

First-class relics are the body or fragments of the body of a saint, such as pieces of bone or flesh.

Second-class relics are something that a saint personally owned, such as a shirt or book or fragments of those items.

Third-class relics are those items that a saint touched or that have been touched to a first-, second-, or another third-class relic of a saint.

Source: Treasures of the Church website