Postcard from Bologna, Italy: Drawn to those bones

The bones above purportedly belong to the bodies of Saint Vitalis (Vitale) and Saint Agricola. The pair’s history is a bit hazy, as the two were martyred in Bologna under the orders of the Roman Emperor Diocletian (244-316) somewhere in the neighborhood of the year 304. As Diocletian claimed to be the son of Jupiter himself, he was not particularly tolerant of people worshipping a supreme being other than his own father.

Catholic Online relays one version of the end of the lives of the saints above:

Vitalis was the slave of Agricola and a dedicated Christian. Arrested and condemned for his faith, Vitalis faced his death with such aplomb that Agricola was converted and accepted his own crucifixion.

The Cathedral in Bologna houses a collection of what are termed “First-Class” relics, including those above. First Class refers to relics that actually were part of the saints’ bodies, versus, say, scraps of their garments.

My fascination with relics stems from the difference of practice of Catholics growing up in Virginia Beach where we had none of which I am aware, and the practice of Catholics in Europe and Mexico where many reliquaries are displayed prominently in churches. The stories about the church and saints I find of interest are the ones nuns never ever mentioned during catechism.

Of course, the United States is not home of many canonized saints, whereas Italy has hundreds. Perhaps the practice of spreading the bones around to different churches arose naturally from the fact that the various extreme methods of exterminating the lives of early Christian martyrs did not always leave their bodies intact.

Rather than try to lamely explain why churches house reliquaries, I thought I’d see how Catholic websites define the practice:

More commonly, the saint’s bones were divided up, so various communities could have a portion of his relics: the skull here, a hand there, other bones elsewhere.

“Relics,” Catholic Answers To Explain and Defend the Faith

The article continues that Saint Jerome explained how the faithful “venerate the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore him whose martyrs they are.” Relics also “may be the occasion of God’s miracles.”

T.L. Frazier clarifies church policies about relics:

Harkening back to the eighth-century iconoclastic controversy and the seventh ecumenical council at Nicaea (787), the Council of Trent maintained against the Reformers that the honor given to a relic, statue, or icon was honor not to an object (fetishism and idolatry), but to the person it represented. Latria (Greek: worship) must be given to God alone, whereas dulia (Greek: veneration or respect) may be given to holy people or articles.

“No Bones about Dem Bones,” T.L. Frazier

Saint Thomas More lost his head over conflicts with Henry VIII who broke with Catholicism to accommodate his habit of engaging in serial marriages. Pope John Paul II proclaimed Thomas More the patron saint of statesmen and politicians. During this contentious election year in the United States, we sure could use some miraculous relief from ugly rhetoric.

Relics of Saint Thomas More were on a whirlwind tour in the United States, ending up in Washington, D.C., on July 5. Hopefully, they left a residue of miraculous powers to evoke statesmanship-like behavior behind in their wake.

If you know anybody who lives in Centennial, Colorado, maybe ask them to visit St. Thomas More Catholic Church to ask for assistance from its reliquary of the saint. But wait, this one American church possesses more than 60 First-Class relics available for veneration, so all my thoughts about saints’ bones in churches in this country must be wrong.

So now I’m curious. Surely a church as ancient as San Fernando Cathedral and the seat of the Archdiocese must have some reliquaries of their own…. Might have to go on a reconnaissance mission in my own backyard.

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