In the very ancient Church Mass was often celebrated over the tombs of the martyrs. A wooden platform similar to a table was placed over the martyr’s remains to hold the paten and chalice required for the liturgy. In those days altars were brought to the martyrs’ remains rather than the relics of martyrs being brought to altars as is the practice today. The great basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul in Rome were accordingly built over the tombs of these honored martyrs. The early Church treasured these hallowed sites and preferred not to tamper with them.
As the Church spread throughout the Mediterranean world and the tombs of martyrs outside of Rome became happily rare, the procedure of “translating” or sending relics to the larger Christian world gradually increased. Towards the end of the sixth century St. Gregory the Great sent relics for four altars to Palladius, Bishop of Saintes, in France. St. Gregory also recommended to the missionary St. Augustine of Canterbury that the cult of the saints and martyrs be presented to the English as the rival to pagan pantheism. A similar practice was used by Anglo-Saxon missionaries in Germany. The Emperor Charlemagne brought the remains of Roman saints back to northern Europe and used them in the dedication of many local churches. The use of specifically Roman saints played a critical role in establishing the authority of the Roman Church in the west.
For many centuries a martyr’s relics were inserted into a small portion of the altar table known as the altar stone. Probably most Rhode Island parish churches have a main altar with an altar stone, about a foot square, centered on the table. Recently the Church has encouraged the ancient practice of placing the relics of a martyr under the altar table within the sanctuary floor. St. Francis of Assisi Church in Warwick has its relics placed in the floor below the altar. The hallowed spot between the table top and the relics in the floor is called the “confessio,” reminiscent of the day when the actual tomb of a confessor of the faith would have been located there.
The cult of relic increased over the centuries, certainly culminating in the years immediately before the Protestant Reformation. Some devotion toward relics has been admittedly excessive. Yet relics follow a natural human disposition to recall and honor the dead. Pictures and mementoes of loved ones are common to every family. As usual, Christianity has taken a natural human tendency and raised it to a sacramental level. Grace builds on nature.
Yet the veneration and employment of the relics of the saints and especially of the Roman martyrs are not just exercises in nostalgia. St. Gregory the Great was eager to distribute Roman relics to the larger Christian world as symbols of and incentives toward Church unity. The bishop of Rome was and is the “rock” upon which Christ first erected his Church and on which he continues to “build” his Church. Accordingly the early popes and even Christian rulers eagerly reminded the world’s assorted Christian communities of the importance of unity with Rome. The spate of heresies that especially dotted early Church history clearly illustrated the need for authentic teaching and for fidelity to the Gospel. Unity with Rome was the Divinely guaranteed source of doctrinal and moral legitimacy. The Church happily survived and benefited from those tumultuous times. As St. Paul writes in this coming Sunday’s second reading, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways!”
The Church’s path through history has often been perplexing and bewildering. Yet the centrality of Rome and of the office of St. Peter in the history of the Church is undeniable. The very phrase “Roman Catholic” says it all. The Church is indeed Catholic, universally respecting, permeating and transforming the world’s assorted cultures. Yet the Church is indeed Roman, secure that the “keys to the kingdom of heaven” have indeed been entrusted to Rome’s bishop and confident that Christ will be true to his promise that “the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail” against his Church.