Friday, June 03, 2005

Retirement Home II: Relics

As I mentioned earlier, people are beginning to ask me if I'd like their old things from when they "used to be Catholic" :).

Probably the most startling thing I've acquired this way so far is a couple of relics. I keep these in my rosary teaching collection because a lot of people, even a lot of practicing Catholics, have never seen an actual relic of a saint close up.

Othmar Augustine

Each of these is in its own case, with a little label inside, and they both look like tiny chips of bone. Both have the usual thread ties, visible when the backs of the metal cases are taken off, and unbroken wax seals, which indicate that the relic that's in the case now is the same one that was sealed into the case originally. Judging by the impression of the seal, the one with red threads and seals comes from the Vatican.

Othmar back Augustine back

The first one is a relic of Saint Othmar, whom I confess I'd never heard of. The label says "S. Othmarus A.", the "S" meaning "saint" and the A standing for abbot. He turns out to have been a reforming abbot at the monastery of St. Gall in Switzerland in the ninth century. (I rely heavily on my copy of Ramsey Abbey's Book of Saints, which rarely fails me, but there are also good sources online.)


The other relic is even more fascinating. Unlike St. Othmar, this one still has its official relic certificate from Rome.


So who is this? It is labeled "S. Augustinus E. C. D." Goodness knows there are quite a few saints named Augustine, but the initials are a clue. E stands for Episcopus, which means Bishop. C is probably Confessor, which is a kind of all-purpose description for any saint who isn't a martyr because their life is deemed to "confess" or prove their faith. And the D? I am fairly sure it stands for "Doctor."

There are currently 33 saints officially titled "Doctors of the Church," named as such not just because they are saints, but for their writings, which explain and defend Catholic doctrine. The first three Doctors have been venerated in the Eastern Church since around the year 1000; four were declared in 1298 by Pope Boniface VIII, the next two in the sixteenth century and all the rest since the 18th.

But there is only one St. Augustine among them: one who is Bishop, Confessor and Doctor. That's St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD). Whatever one thinks of some of the things he said (and I certainly don't agree with all of them), he's definitely one of the great saints of the church.

The document that came with this one is almost as fascinating as the relic. It's an official certificate from the Vatican, numbered 132 and dated 1978 (the same number and date are written next to the seal on the back of the relic inside the case).

Augustine authentication

I understand that different certificates have somewhat different wording. Relics of modern saints can often be authenticated without question as coming from the actual saint, but it's a bit more problematic for older saints, whose relics may not have a continuous provenance or a clear document trail all the way back. (Many relics have been around for generations and their history often doesn't stand up to our modern skepticism and standards of proof.)

So it's not really surprising that this certificate basically (if I'm reading it right) says that these "particles of the bones of St. Augustine E.C.D." are "recognized" ("recognovisse") and that they may be "kept and publicly displayed for the veneration of the faithful" ("retinendi et publicae fidelium venerationem exponendi") -- but that it doesn't say exactly how they are recognized as being from that specific saint.