Not long ago, a relic of Saint Thomas Becket was brought back briefly to Canterbury from Hungary, where it had helped the Church resist persecution by the Communist regime. There were many Hungarian martyrs whose names will never be known to the rest of the world. The link that Thomas’s relic represents to the European and world-wide Church, through the past 840 years, was greatly appreciated there. (Another relic was sent to El Salvador following the martyrdom of Saint Oscar Romero.)
This event set me thinking about relics, and I turned first to Monsignor Ronald Knox and his little book The Mass in Slow Motion, published by Sheed & Ward in 1948. We read from pages 14-15.
[The altar] stone has been consecrated long ago, by a bishop; and the bishop in consecrating it fills up some holes in it with – what do you think? Tiny bits of relics of the saints. People used to use relics of that kind rather freely in the Middle Ages; they used to put them into bridges, for instance, so as to be sure that the bridges held up… Even a military chaplain carries round with him an altar stone, with relics let into it, and he must never say Mass without having that stone on the soap-box or whatever it is he is using for an altar.
Now, just as he is going to begin the Mass proper, the priest rushes up to the altar, kisses it, and says, “We beseech thee, 0 Lord, by the merits of those saints whose relics are here, and of all the saints, to be indulgent towards my sins “. The saints whose relics are here – why is that so important? Why, because in the very early days, when the Christians at Rome were being persecuted, they used to meet for worship in the catacombs … There the Christians used to bury the poor mangled remains of their friends who had been killed in the persecution; and on the tombstones raised over these bodies of the martyrs the Roman bishop used to say Mass. And when the priest, saying those words, kisses the tiny relics tucked away in the altar-stone, he reminds himself, if he has any sense of history, that by that action he is putting himself in touch, so to speak, with the Universal Church that is in Communion with Rome.
- Saints of the ancient Church of Rome: pray for us.
- All saints of this place where I find myself: pray for us.
Here is a story about a long-lost altar stone which tells about the present day policy towards relics as well as the tradition of the last few centuries. Toronto Altar Stone.
Parts of this weeks’ reflections have appeared in the Independent Catholic News website. http://www.indcatholicnews.com/news.php?viewStory=30282