Relics of Saints

As a non-Catholic who has been married to my Catholic wife for several years, I think I have a fairly firm grasp on many Catholic teachings and beliefs - at least the big ones. Occasionally, however, I find myself stumped by certain aspects of Catholicism. One of these occasions occured a few weeks ago when my wife, reading the newspaper, suddenly exclaimed, “Oh! The relics of Saint Maria Goretti will be at the cathedral next week. I’d like to go.” This was obviously a matter of importance to her, so I agreed to go with her. Since I was going to attend this event I decided to do a bit of research regarding this saint and her relics. Her story, while semi-inspirational, didn’t seem to me to be all that special. But what really struck me was that her body was supposedly “incorruptible.” By that, I assumed that her body had not decomposed, but had somehow been preserved due to her saintly nature.

Anyway, on the appointed day, we made our way to the cathedral. Apparently my wife was not the only one who recognized the importance of this occasion. So did a few hundred others. After standing in line for what seemed like an eternity, we finally got into the church, and as we got close, I got a close up view of these relics. Now, maybe my definition of “incorruptible” is different that the one the Church uses, but what I observed was not a body that had not decomposed, but rather a wax figure. Maybe it contained what was once her body…maybe not. But it certainly was not a naturally preserved body. Color me puzzled.

Anyway, to my point. I’m not trying to be disrespectful, but I have to ask: What’s the big deal? Why is this so important? Why is this wax figure being called an incorruptible body? Why are relics in general considered important? Is there a process by which these relics are certified to be genuine? (I recall talking to an acquaintance who, a few years ago, had returned from a pilgrimage site in Europe where he claimed to have seen a relic of “the true cross.” I tried to act impressed, but in my mind I was thinking, “Yeah, sure you did.”)

Again, not meaning any disrespect. I guess this is just one of those things that I just don’t get.

It seems it is a common mistake by many to believe her body is incorrupt. It is not and not claimed to be.

Is St. Maria Goretti’s Body Incorrupt?

It is often incorrectly reported that St. Maria’s body is “incorrupt”. The bodies of some saints are miraculously preserved from decomposition. Perhaps the most famous example of this phenomenon is St. Bernadette Soubirous (the visionary to whom our Blessed Mother appeared at Lourdes). More information on St. Bernadette can be found here. Why does God grant that some saints’ bodies experience incorruption but not others? Signs are given by God according to their need. The sign of incorruptibility is hinted at in Psalm 16:

And so my heart rejoices, my soul is glad;
even my body shall rest in safety.
For you will not leave my soul among the dead,
nor let your beloved know decay.

St. Peter quotes this same passage in Acts 2:25-27, and applies it specifically to Jesus. And so now, following Christ, who is “the first born from the dead” (Colossians 1:18), we know that this promise applies to us as well. In other words, the incorruptible bodies of certain saints are signs of the life to come, where there will be no death: they point to what awaits us.

Nevertheless, possession of the property of incorruptibility does not mean that one saint is holier than another. The bodies of the Apostles are not incorrupt. Neither is that of St. John the Baptist, of whom Our Lord Himself said that no man is greater (Matt 11:11).

St. Maria Goretti’s body is not incorrupt. It experienced natural degradation when it was interred in the cemetery of Nettuno, Italy, following her murder. Thus, making this pilgrimage is not her flesh but simply her skeletal remains.

For comparison, other saints who’s bodies are incorrupt, it doesn’t mean they don’t change somewhat. It means they are not decaying similar to what normal bodies do. They can still turn darker colors or have minor changes, but the body still remains.

If you compare it to normal decomposition, it is drastically different. There is basically two different scenarios. If the body is in a normal or humid climate, the body decomposes and within a year or two, very little of the tissue remains. If in an arid climate, the body mummifies, but far different than looking than the incorruptibles.

St. Bernadette has some darker coloring on her and the nose and eyes have sunk, but her remains were buried in a damp grave for 30 years. There shouldn’t even be a body.

Since Old Testament times, God has been known to work miracles through the relics of his saints.
And as a man was being buried, lo, a marauding band was seen and the man was cast into the grave of Elisha; and as soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood on his feet. (2 Kings 13:21)

And God did extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried away from his body to the sick, and diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them. (Acts 19:11-12)

Relics are part of the OT…and early Christianity…

Brown challenged my view that the place of saints and relics in the church was a mere holdover from paganism, and that the practice was somehow peripheral to true Christianity. Instead, Brown painted a picture of ancient Christianity and paganism in which relics were indispensable to the former, and repulsive to the latter. Far from a holdover from paganism, the place of relics in the Church appeared as something intensely Jewish, Hebraic, and Old Testament. Pagans, like Julian-the-Apostate, found the practice revolting and legislated against it. (Paganism, with its notions of ritual purity, had strictly delimited the realm of divine worship and neatly separated it from the realm of corpses and the dead.)

Peter Brown:

On this point, the rise of Christianity in the pagan world was met by deep religious anger. We can chart the rise to prominence of the Christian church most faithfully by listening to pagan reactions to the cult of martyrs. For the progress of this cult spelled out for the pagans a slow and horrid crumbling of ancient barriers.1

The more I thought about this, the more I realized that it posed a problem. It is one thing to dismiss something as peripheral to the faith of the ancient Church, but to dismiss something that was ubiquitous and central to devotion and even to liturgy? G.J.C. Snoek had made just this point in his monograph Medieval Piety from Relics to the Eucharist: A Process of Mutual Interaction. Snoek showed just how much the Christian liturgy itself had been influenced by the ancient cult of relics. I began to realize that dismissing saints and relics was to dismiss the same Church that gave us the Ecumenical councils, Augustine’s doctrines of grace and justification, and the canon of Scripture. I needed to look into this more carefully.

I’ve never been too excited about body parts of saints, or even whole bodies - it just seems so barbaric. :frowning:

Here’s a link to an article about the “incorruptible” bodies of saints:

I recommend the book by Joan Carroll Cruz “The Incorruptibles”.

It explains the phenomenon very thoroughly.

God willing I will be able to see Saint Maria Goretti’s relics this Friday.
Ya !

Here are four short articles on Relics :

What is the Purpose of Relics?
A Biblical Case for Relics?
Are Bones Depressing ?
Relics are Not Magic

First class relic of Saint Pope John Paul II
incased in a Golden Bible


Thanks for the responses.

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