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Veneration of Holy Relics and the Catholic Mass

The miracles which derive from the holy relics witness to the fact that their pious veneration by the people is pleasing to God (Saint Justin Popovich)

Of all the many ways of showing veneration of the relics of saints and martyrs, one of the most profound is that the Church has maintained a custom of placing them in the altar where the Mass is celebrated. Both the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) and the Code of Canon Law give specific directives as to the construction of the altar upon which the Eucharist will be celebrated. First, the directives say that the altar should be made of natural stone, as it represents Jesus who is the “living stone” (1 Peter 2:4), although other worthy material may be used. Then the directives state that the tradition of placing relics of martyrs and saints under a fixed altar, as has been done since ancient times, should be preserved (Canon 1237:2). This custom has both historical and theological roots.

This sign of special veneration given to the relics of saints has a long unbroken liturgical history. In the early Church, the bodies of saints and martyrs were not placed in secret places away from the faithful. Rather the bodies were placed in tombs where the faithful came to pray and celebrate the Eucharist. Most notably in the catacombs, these tombs were above ground and table shaped. Soon these tombs became the table (or altar) upon which the Mass was celebrated. The faithful saw a clear connection that these saints and martyrs, who gave their lives to pass on the faith to future generations, were still united to the Church on earth whenever the sacraments were celebrated.  The Roman Canon (the First Eucharistic Prayer) gives a long litany of saints and martyrs being invoked by the Church in Rome, many of whom were buried in the catacombs, in the very place where this prayer was being spoken at Mass. When Christianity was legalized and churches were built for public worship, the bodies of saints were removed from the catacombs and transferred to ornate jars (reliquaries), and placed in beautiful altars. Often the altar was built with a large glass window so that the faithful could clearly see the full body (or bones of the saint). This was done to continue the practice of having the saints and martyrs present at Mass, both to seek their intercession, and to express gratitude for their passing on the faith to us. 

In addition, the Church’s placing of saint’s relics in the altar carried a theological significance. The Book of Revelation teaches that the Church’s liturgy now on earth, is in fact a participation of the divine liturgy of heaven. Therefore Church architecture, vestments, music, and prayers are all modeled after the liturgy that will be celebrated for eternity in heaven. In Revelation 6:9 we hear: “And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held”. 

For centuries, the rite of dedicating a new altar has included a ceremony where the bishop inters the relics of saints and martyrs in the altar before it was used for the first time at Mass. It was also a common practice that priests who were assigned pastoral work outside of a fixed church (ie., military chaplains or missionaries) would carry with them a small “altar stone” (a thin piece of marble with relics of the saints imbedded with it). This stone would be placed on a table, and used as the “altar” when Mass was celebrated outside of a dedicated church. Thus even Mass celebrated on a ship, in a battlefield, or in a jungle, was celebrated on an altar that had the saints and martyrs present.  

From the catacombs until today, the Church has venerated the saints and martyrs with this most special veneration, teaching our bond to the saints and the divine liturgy of heaven.        

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