Some believe that listening to heavy metal and soaking in its sometimes faux macabre culture can lead to the devil. It led me instead to a fascination with holy relics. I was perhaps the only teenager in my suburban Los Angeles town who yearned to see bones and other pieces of sanctified stiffs encased in glass. That was what drew me to ask an ancient woman at my Catholic church’s administration office what relic was housed in the church’s altar—a simple question, I thought. She admitted that not only had she never been asked that question, but she had no idea and called in Father Dennis. He was equally in the dark.
Which was a little bit strange to me. After all, these spiritual accoutrements were a large part of the Catholic experience for well over a millennium. But a quiet groundswell of Catholics won’t give up this time-honored tradition of praying to a saint’s bodily remain. Pope Benedict XVI reinstated the Latin Mass. So why not bring back an emphasis on relic veneration as well? A French priest is currently touring the United States with the supposed bones of Mary Magdalene, and the faithful are flocking to pray in front of them. In September and October, the relics of a 19th-century nun, St. Therese of Lisieux, went on a 28-stop tour around Great Britain. If the thousands of devotees who came to witness these lovely bones are any indication, the faithful are hungering for a less sterile form of religion.
While there’s no scholarly consensus on when relic veneration began, many historians point to the year 156 A.D. and the death of Polycarp, then bishop of Smyrna (in modern-day Turkey). He got on the Romans’ bad side by praying to Jesus instead of the Roman gods, and he was burned. After the pyre cooled, Polycarp’s followers scurried over and scooped up his remains and ran off with them. With that, the cult of relics was born.
Relics became ingrained in Catholic Church orthodoxy at the Second Council of Nicaea in 787, when church authorities passed a law stating that every church should have a relic at its altar. The punishment for failing to obey: excommunication. But ever since the reforms of Vatican II in the early 1960s, relic veneration has virtually disappeared from the official landscape of Catholicism, particularly in the United States. Relics weren’t actually mentioned during the three-year council, but church leaders did address the way new churches should be designed. By the time Vatican II was over, iconography was out, in favor of a lighter, more airy atmosphere, uncluttered by images and, apparently, relics. If that wasn’t enough, in 1969, the church officially laid to rest the 787 ruling at Nicaea by no longer requiring Catholic churches to posses a holy remnant at their altars.
The buying and selling of relics—called simony—is technically forbidden under church law, but if you can overlook that law, you can start your very own DIY relics collection at A.R. Broomer Ltd., a tiny antiques shop in New York City. Amanda Broomer’s shop is crammed with two types of objects: 19th-century wooden santos dolls and holy relics. Broomer, who is Jewish and has no spiritual connection to the curios, is motivated by the beauty of the reliquaries. “I told my parents that if the Jewish faith made things this visually appealing, I’d be selling those, too.” The shop shelves are lined with small containers holding a shard of bone, a flake of skin, or a strand of hair. Many of the relics she receives come straight from churches that have been closed. After having no takers with other parishes, some church officials feel they have no other option but to send someone over to Broomer with a load of relics in the hope that they end up in the right hands.
So how much does a piece of a pious person run you these days? It all depends on official papers of authenticity and/or an official red wax papal seal, both of which mean a relics expert at the Vatican has inspected the piece and decided it is the real deal. Without one of these, a relic’s price can drop. During one of my visits to Broomer’s shop, I spotted the vertebrae of St. Redempta, a sixth-century martyr, with papers and a papal wax seal; it goes for $2,500. Next to that was a bone shard of St. Patrick (without papers), priced to sell at $495. And yet next to that was a piece of flesh from Pope Pius X with papers: $350.
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.
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.