At your parish, do you know which saint’s relics are contained in the main altar of your church?
Fr. A with my son, Thomas, attempting to remove the altar stone from the altar at our church
Neither we nor our pastor knew the answer to this question until a recent weekday when my wife and our oldest son went to daily mass. After serving, our son (age 11) asked Fr. A about the altar stone in our church and whose relics were housed inside it.
Frequently, the church will be named after the saint whose relics are housed there. But, for example, in the case of St. Mary’s or Our Divine Savior or Immaculate Conception Parish, another saint’s relics will be needed, for obvious reasons. Our parish falls into this category.
Fr. A, a rather curious guy, long-suffering and patient priest that he is, never shirking from an opportunity to discover something new or walk the extra mile, obliged our son by uncovering the altar and removing the stone installed in it.
Fr. A and Thomas, examining the altar stone upon removal
They discovered an inscription on the back on the altar stone, which reads, “This altar stone contains the relics of SS. Beatus and Lucidus, Martyrs.”
Nearly every Catholic church, as part of its consecration, contains the first-degree relic of at least one saint, which is placed within a “reliquary”, sometimes separate from or integrated with a literal stone that covers and protects the relic, and which is placed into the main altar.
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on Relics available at NewAdvent.org, a decree of the Council of Trent instructs that “the holy bodies of holy martyrs and of others now living with Christ — which bodies were the living members of Christ and ‘the temple of the Holy Ghost’ (1 Corinthians 6:19) and which are by Him to be raised to eternal life and to be glorified are to be venerated by the faithful…”
The veneration of relics is an ancient practice of the Church. For example, centuries of tradition brought many far-flung pilgrims to where the bones of St. Peter were buried near the place of his death, on Vatican hill, steps from the circus where he was martyred. After nearly two millennia of this tradition, in the last century archaelogical excavation confirmed the actual presence of the bones of St. Peter, precisely below the main altar of the Basilica.
Plan of Old St. Peter’s Basilica (A) in relation to the Circus of Nero (C); The obelisk is
[SIDEBAR: do you know why there is an Egyptian obelisk in the center of the square in front of St. Peter's Basilica? Contrary to absurd "history" advanced by Dan Brown and his ilk, the obelisk decorated the center of Nero's Circus (also on Vatican hill), where so many Christians were martyred, and it was likely one of the last things that St. Peter laid his eyes upon (upside-down) before his gruesome death by crucifixion. Early Christians and true historians would have understood the significance of moving the obelisk a few meters and making it the centerpiece of the square in front of the Basilica. With Rome as the center of Christendom in the West, it became a sign of the Church's triumph over persecution.]
To venerate the relic of a saint is most certainly not a form of idolatry. For example, St. Jerome says: “We do not worship, we do not adore [non colimus, non adoramus], for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the Creator, but we venerate [honoramus] the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore Him whose martyrs they are.” (“Ad Riparium”, i, P.L., XXII, 907).
A relic is worthy of veneration because God makes the saint. A saint bears living witness here on earth to communion with God. A saint is so caught in the gaze of God that their holiness provides a glimpse of the Kingdom of God and the Resurrection of the Body: both body and soul become instruments of holiness.
There is also something foundational about venerating relics and placing them in our church’s altars. The relic becomes another tangible example of the faith being built upon the faith of those already in Heaven. Relics are not talismans or objects of superstition. Rather, they are proofs that God glorifies our bodies even while we live, at least in some part. On the altar, we place our Gifts upon these foundations, because these “foundations” have been blessed by Our Lord.
[SIDEBAR: I recently shared that we are in the process of creating a chapel in our home that we use for prayer. In connection with our "home altar", we acquired a relic of St. Benedict, now encased in a reliquary atop our altar.]
So perhaps, if you have an inquisitive son or daughter and the kind of priest who (like ours) will patiently answer questions (or better yet, put on his Indiana Jones hat), it might be worthwhile and interesting to learn a bit more about the relics present in your church!