Catholic relics - is this one a step too far?


Im on vacation and travelling. I visited a catholic church today in which there is, enshrined in a glass box on a plinth, the head of Oliver Plunket, a catholic marthyr.

I lit a candle and said a special prayer for someone here as I promised them I would.

But yikes, a head !!!

I have to admit I found it a bit, well, weird.

It may be because Ive had to deal with headless bodies in the past and there is something profoundly degrading about beheading someone. Picking up the pieces is macabre to put it mildly. He was drawn, quatered and beheaded apparently and some woman grabbed his head and hid it.

So, can someone explain this to me. I dont really get it. Someone told me they used to parade this head around the town on a certain day, but I dont think they do that anymore.

Would it not be better and more dignified for Oliver Plunket to be buried and a shrine marking the spot or something, rather than having a human head on display as a shrine.

Im trying to understand this part of catholicism. Catholics pray for the dead. I cant imagine any priest, or civil authority for that matter, saying it would be acceptable for a family to have in their livingroom the head of a dead relative. That’s the stuff of nightmares.

Yet here is one in a church. Openly on display and being prayed to.

I’d appreciate any good links to help me understand why catholics do this.


Sure. Here you are:

The Catholic Answers site has an excellent library. I looked under 'faith" (next to forums, above), entered ‘relics’ into the search box, and this was the first article brought up. I read through it and I’m giving you the link and of course, also the information for helping you to do further searches through the library at any time. I recommend checking the library and/or This Rock (both found here and easily accessed as above) as well as the Catholic Encyclopedia at before asking really ‘broad’ questions such as yours, because often you’ll either get enough information from the library to answer your question anyway, or what you read will help you narrow the topic down and enable better, more succinct, and more apposite answers.

God bless.


Ok, what kind of job (forensics) do/did you have that you’ve had to deal with headless bodies? :eek: Secondly, is the head of Oliver Plunkett well-preserved, if it is, this is why it may be on display as to show the faithful that he was holy (usually when a Catholic dies and some part of him as shown very little or no detioration it is a sign of his/her sainthood)? I agree that it is a little creepy to see a head (but I guess this is a means of showing the faithful what it is to have faith), do they always have it on display? God bless.


Oh I just remembered that you were/are a soldier so disregard my question.


Thanks for the reply. I read the link. It seems the relics of OT and NT times were ‘‘active’’. By that I mean there was some form of touch involved. In the case of the head of Oliver Plunket, it is merely on display. That’s the bit I suppose Im struggling with most. I think personally I see a difference between a piece of bone, cloth, wood, or whatever, and a fully preserved human head.

There just seems to be something very macabre about having a detached head on display and parading it about town.

It seems to me that burying him would be a much more dignified sign of respect for this martyr of the catholic church than displaying his head in public.

I guess I have another huge gap in my understanding of catholic practices that will take some time to fill.


Ahhh very interesting - yes, the head seemed quite well preserved, but I dont know if that is by artificial means or not. And I forgot to mention he is now a saint. Apparently the first Irish saint in more than 700 years.


If i were pope, I’d bury all these relics and tell people to go home and pray to Jesus .


No it can’t be by artificial means (it may have some sort of wax covering though) as that would invalidate it. It had to have been preserved by the hand of God. I think somewhere in the Bible it mentions how his holy ones will not see decay.


I googled the head out of curiosity.

I’m fascinated thinking this man was alive once, a long, long time ago. But other than that I’m not sure how I feel about his head being displayed as a relic.


This is very much how I think I feel about the issue too. But it’s clear relics have a history going back to the earliest church times. Im wondering how much of this is tradition that has grown up over time, - the links Ive read all labor the point there is nothing ‘‘magical’’ in them of themselves, other than what God alone choses to work. Surely there is nothing more effective than prayer, and praying as Jesus taught us to.

But Josie said something interesting about the preserved bodies not being subject to decay as a sign to the faithful of the persons holiness. Which I suppose would make them and their lives at least worthy of contemplation.

I dont know. Im trying to figure it out.


I think that Western Culture, and the 20-21rst Century culture is exibited far more than anything macabre here.

We are far too removed from death, and dead bodies. Mortuary practices in the US have become such that death and bodies are quickly removed from our enviornment and psyche. After the Mortuary picks up the body, most of us do not see it until it has been sanatized, emalmed, dressed and seen the cosmetician and hair dresser. If there was any prolonged illness or other disfigurement it is covered up.

In traditional cultures, the body remains at home, the casket is brought into the home, and after a few days a procession is made to the Church, (Protestant or Catholic depending on the family) then after the Church services, or Mass, a procession to the cemetary for committal. The only real exceptions are the Jewish and Islamic customs, where still someone sits with the body, and it is not left alone. Among the Muslims, family members get into the grave and the body is handed down to them to place in their final sleep. Traditional cultures also have rules around mourning, but that is another issue.

Even though I grew up in a non-Catholic enviornment, the idea of Catholics displaying Relics for veneration was not macabre to me, but rather explained by others as a sign of great respect to those being honored.


You can see the head here.
It is preserved in St. Peter’s Church in Drogheda, Co. Louth.

I don’t see anything wrong with displaying a martyr’s head for the benefit of the faithful. After all, the head is just a part of the body like any other, if one thinks about it. Besides, this particular relic doesn’t look particularly gruesome (at least in the photograph).

There is a Catholic Answers tract on relics. Of particular note is this quote from St. Jerome, which explains both the practice of veneration of relics and its purpose:

We do not worship, we do not adore, for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the creator, but we venerate the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore him whose martyrs they are



Just remember the silence while you’re trying to figure it out. :wink:



Oh and to derail my own thread for a minute, there’s a nano geocache outside the church but I’ll be darned if I could find it - and the place was heaving with muggles anyhows. :stuck_out_tongue:

Back on track - The layout in the church is a bit different than in the linked pic - the candles are now to the right of the display and theres a seating area directly in front of the head.


Ok I have no problem with relics but I have to admit that looks…ehh… disturbing. It’s not like St Bernadette who looks nearly unchanged at all, this head looks somewhat mummified. I’m sure he was a very holy man but it looks a bit, I hate to say it, creepy.


I agree with you. And, actually, if the whole body for whatever reason is not incorrupt (destroyed during the martyrdom etc.) the head, as the most personal and honorable part of the body, seems to me a valid surface for saintly veneration. (We relate to others via their heads, mostly, e.g. we don’t converse with shoulders or limbs).

I have seen mummified remnants and skeletons of human beings displayed in museums in Greece, Mexico and even Los Angeles. These are secular museums; the ex-human beings are just there for paying customers to gawk at, and obviously look as dead as they are. So if God Himself has preserved the head of a saint in a presentable condition, why shouldn’t the faithful be able to see “him” as a holy reminder?


I don’t think it looks that bad myself, really…

Actually I looked up St. Bernadette and apparently she has been given a wax mask to make her face look more presentable.

I also chanced across another picture on Wikipedia of Saint Virginia’s incorrupt body… now that is rather creepy.



Good point.
By the way, about dead bodies in museums, if Guyonthestreet is coming down to Dublin, he can view [squeamishness warning] this charming specimen, amongst a couple of others, in the archaeology museum on Kildare Street. :stuck_out_tongue:


am i correct in my understanding that most, if not all altars have some sort of the relic of their patron(ess) built into them? Like a piece of bone or cloth?


You are indeed correct.

Recognizable relics of the body, however are far rarer.

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