Ancient relics on display

  • April 13, 2007
OTTAWA - While a relic is often labelled as a thing of the past, as Carlos Martins explains, these sacred objects have relevance today. The fourth-year Companions of the Cross seminarian uses his extensive relic collection to teach about them. A former atheist, Martins came to the Catholic Church almost 11 years ago during a mystical dialogue with God before the Blessed Sacrament. Two years later, his relic ministry began.
YSN: What is a relic?

Martins: A relic is an object connected with a saint. It can be one of three kinds. First-class relics are the body or fragments of the body of a saint — pieces of the bone or flesh. Second-class relics are something that the saint personally owned — a shirt or book or fragments of those items. Third-class relics are  items that the saint touched or that have been touched to a first-class relic. Relics are imbued with grace (Catechism, 1674). We do not bless relics, but rather use them to convey a blessing.

YSN: How did your receive your first relics?

Martins: I was in Rome for a students’ conference. One day a fellow student pulled out of his pocket a first-class relic of St. Faustina, the “apostle” of Divine Mercy. He let me hold it. He could tell that I appreciated the experience. He helped me acquire some relics for a prayer group ministry back home. He asked me for the names of whom I wanted. I thought big. I asked for a reliquary containing all 12 Apostles and St. Paul, and for another one containing 12 of my favourite saints (Our Lady, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Jerome). He put my request in and after a few weeks’ wait I received them in a package from Rome along with the supporting documentation.
I currently have over 200 relics in my collection. Most of them came to me by way of rescue by approaching sellers or by donation from lay people who would like to once again see them used in ministry.

YSN: In what way is your work a ministry?

Martins: First, I restore the use of relics to their rightful place, saving them from neglect, misuse or being sold. The selling of spiritual things is a grave sin called simony. Canon law expressly forbids the sale of relics, however, they are sold, mainly in antique shops and on Internet auction sites. One site offers hundreds of relics for sale from all over the world. I try to appeal to the sellers’ consciences, asking them to submit to the teaching of the church and remove their relics from sale. I also promise that if they give them to me I will use them in my ministry and offer prayers and Masses on their behalf. I have far more failures than successes, but I have helped stop many sales.
There has been a movement to get sites such as eBay to forbid the sale of relics. Some years ago, eBay prohibited selling the Eucharist, after a seller offered hosts consecrated by Pope John Paul II stolen from a large outdoor Mass. We hope eBay will do the same for relics. Canon law does not forbid the purchase of relics. Rescuing a relic in order to restore it to the church is meritorious.
Second, I sense a call to place people in contact with relics and to let them experience them. I go from church to church where I display them for the faithful. I also give an audiovisual catechesis. These expositions have been powerful and intimate experiences.

YSN: How have you seen the Lord work miraculously through these relics?

Martins: I have seen much emotional and psychological healing in this ministry, as well as a healing of the faith. In an instant, the faith becomes real for some people in a way it had never been for them. I have not yet seen physical healings, but I have been doing expositions only for the past year. God likes to surprise.
During my expositions, I encourage people to touch the relics, to pick them up, to bless themselves with them, to touch their rosaries, devotional items and even to touch pictures of their family members to them.

YSN: Tell me about your most surprising relic acquisition.

Martins: It is a huge relic of the Our Lord’s Cross that I obtained from a Protestant who runs a liturgical antiques shop. I asked him for it and promised 50 Masses for him and his family. After refusing several times, he finally agreed. This is one of the largest pieces of the true cross in North America.

YSN: How can you tell whether a relic is authentic?

Martins: The church has strict regulations. First, each relic is housed within a reliquary. The reliquary is closed with silk threads upon which wax is impressed with the official seal of a church authority — the coat of arms of a bishop or cardinal. Only if the seal and the entire reliquary are intact may the relic be used for public veneration in a church.
Secondly, each reliquary has issued with it a document that authenticates the relic. It contains the name and signature of the issuing authority of the relic, and is also imprinted with his coat of arms, which is identical to the one on the reliquary. It too must accompany the relic as a guarantee of authenticity. Many of the “relics” seen on the Internet are fake.

YSN: How have relics become lost over time?

Martins: Until the past 100 years, fires and theft have been the most common ways relics have disappeared. Recently, relics are usually lost to neglect. The relics are removed from churches and convents and are either sold, thrown away or forgotten in storage. The only legitimate way to divest a relic is to give it to the care of someone in the church. Several people inherited relics from a deceased relative and gave them to me.

YSN: How should today’s Catholics relate to relics?

Martins: Modern Catholics should relate to relics in the same way as Catholics of other ages have: with profound respect and veneration. The saints are our friends and in venerating their relics, we are honouring both them and the Lord.

(Du Broy, 19, studies journalism at the University of Ottawa.)

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