Today most people regard the Catholic Church’s cult of relics to be an old, antiquated practice that is the result of ignorance and superstition. Most Catholics themselves are embarassed by it.
But in the age of the Fathers, it was not uncommon for learned men to honor and revere sacred relics. We find, for example, Cyril of Jerusalem making constant references to the True Cross in his Catechetical Lectures. St. Augustine says in opposition to the pagans of his day: “The truth is that even today miracles are being wrought in the name of Christ, sometimes through His sacraments and sometimes through the intercession of the relics of his saints.” (City of God, XXII, 8) He then goes on to recount a miraculous incident in Milan of which he was a witness:
“This, however, was not the case with a miracle that took place in Milan while I was there. A great many people managed to hear of a blind man whose sight was restored because the city is big and, besides, the Emperor was there at the time and an immense multitude of people was gathered to venerate the relics of the martyrs, Protasius and Gervasius, and so witnessed what took place. The relics had been hidden, and no one knew where they were until the hiding place was revealed in a dream to Bishop Ambrose, who thereupon went and found them. It was on that occassion that the long-enduring darkness dropped from the blind man’s eyes and he saw the light of day.” (ibid)
In Basil of Caesarea’s only extant letter to St. Ambrose, we find an excellent testimony to the veneration of relics in the early church. Ambrose and Basil were good friends, although they had never met each other in person. Ambrose was an avid reader of Basil’s works, and his theology therefore bears some unique Cappadocian characteristics.
First a little background. In 355, the Arian Auxentius had been appointed to the Milanese episcopate. St. Dionysius, the rightful holder of that office, was sent into forced exile at Cappadocia by the Emperor Valentianian I, where he died in 374. Auxentius died in 374, and Ambrose was installed as the bishop of Milan later that year. Ambrose then wrote a letter to Basil, the bishop of Caesarea, as a request that the dead body of St. Dionysius be restored to his native city. Basil’s reply is dated to the year 375.
Here is the text of Basil’s letter and my comments:
“The gifts of the Lord are ever great and many; in greatness beyond measure, in number incalculable. To those who are not insensible of His mercy one of the greatest of these gifts is that of which I am now availing myself, the opportunity allowed us, far apart in place though we be, of addressing one another by letter. He grants us two means of becoming acquainted; one by personal intercourse, another by epistolary correspondence. Now I have become acquainted with you through what you have said. I do not mean that my memory is impressed with your outward appearance, but that the beauty of the inner man has been brought home to me by the rich variety of your utterances, for each of us ‘speaketh out of the abundance of the heart.’ “
i) Although Basil has never met Ambrose in person, he has become intimately acquainted with him through their letters.
“I have given glory to God, Who in every generation selects those who are well-pleasing to Him; Who of old indeed chose from the sheepfold a prince for His people; Who through the Spirit gifted Amos the herdman with power and raised him up to be a prophet; Who now has drawn forth for the care of Christ’s flock a man from the imperial city, entrusted with the government of a whole nation, exalted in character, in lineage, in position, in eloquence, in all that this world admires. This same man has flung away all the advantages of the world, counting them all loss that he may gain Christ, and has taken in his hand the helm of the ship, great and famous for its faith in God, the Church of Christ. “
i) Basil refers to Ambrose as “a man from the imperial city, entrusted with the government of a whole nation” because he had previously been a civil magistrate and had lived in Rome. In that case, he would be using hyperbolic language.
ii) It is possible that here Basil is praising the emperor Valentinian II. Valentinian had ratified Ambrose’s election as bishop, and therefore it could be said that Ambrose owed his episcopate to the good will of that emperor. If this interpretation is right, then Basil would here be praising Valentinian for appointing Ambrose to the episcopate. However, it is unlikely because Basil goes on to speak of Ambrose himself as having been transferred “from the judges of the earth to the throne of the Apostles.”
“Come, then, O man of God; not from men have you received or been taught the Gospel of Christ; it is the Lord Himself who has transferred you from the judges of the earth to the throne of the Apostles; fight the good right; heal the infirmity of the people, if any are infected by the disease of Arian madness; renew the ancient footprints of the Fathers. “
i) Auxentius had ruled as bishop of Milan for nearly twenty years, so it was now Ambrose’s job to renew the Catholic faith in the city.
“You have laid the foundation of affection towards me; strive to build upon it by the frequency of your salutations. Thus shall we be able to be near one another in spirit, although our earthly homes are far apart. “
By your earnestness and zeal in the matter of the blessed bishop Dionysius you testify all your love to the Lord, your honour for your predecessors, and your zeal for the fairly. For our disposition towards our faithful fellow-servants is referred to the Lord Whom they have served. Whoever honours men that have contended for the faith proves that he has like zeal for it. One single action is proof of much virtue. “
i) This is a perfect example of the attitude we Catholics are to have in regards to the saints that have gone before us. We do not serve God in a void; we offer worship to God in communion with the entire church of Christ and with a “cloud of witnesses.”
ii) We Christians are required to venerate the saints. To do otherwise would be an insult to Christ himself, because they too are members of Christ. This is in sharp contrast to that type of religion, especailly found in Protestantism, that sees in any such veneration the stench of ‘idolatry.’
“I wish to acquaint your love in Christ that the very zealous brethren who have been commissioned by your reverence to act for you in this good work have won praise for all the clergy by the amiability of their manners; for by their individual modesty and conciliatoriness they have shewn the sound condition of all. Moreover, with all zeal and diligence they have braved an inclement season; and with unbroken perseverance have persuaded the faithful guardians of the blessed body to transmit to them the custody of what they have regarded as the safeguard of their lives. And you must understand that they are men who would never have been forced by any human authority or sovereignty, had not the perseverance of these brethren moved them to compliance. “
i) Basil is alluding to the men that Ambrose has sent to recover St. Dionysius’s relics. He praises their manners, zeal, and perseverance in persuading the guardians of Dionysius’s corpse to yield it to them. These temporal guardians appearently were very reluctant to do so; they “would never have been forced by any human authority or sovereignty” to give it up.
ii) See in what high words Basil describes the relic – the “safeguard of their lives.” How many Catholics today would describe any relic with such high language?
“No doubt a great aid to the attainment of the object desired was the presence of our well beloved and reverend son Therasius the presbyter. He voluntarily undertook all the toil of the journey; he moderated the energy of the faithful on the spot; he persuaded opponents by his arguments; in the presence of priests and deacons, and of many others who fear the Lord, he took up the relics with all becoming reverence, and has aided the brethren in their preservation. These relics do you receive with a joy equivalent to the distress with which their custodians have parted with them and sent them to you. Let none dispute; let none doubt. Here you have that unconquered athlete. These bones, which shared in the conflict with the blessed soul, are known to the Lord. These bones He will crown, together with that soul, in the righteous day of His requital, as it is written, “we must stand before the judgment seat of Christ, that each may give an account of the deeds he has done in the body.” One coffin held that honoured corpse. None other lay by his side. The burial was a noble one; the honours of a martyr were paid him. Christians who had welcomed him as a guest and then with their own hands laid him in the grave, have now disinterred him. They have wept as men bereaved of a father and a champion. But they have sent him to you, for they put your joy before their own consolation. Pious were the hands that gave; scrupulously careful were the hands that received. There has been no room for deceit; no room for guile. I bear witness to this. Let the untainted truth be accepted by you. “
i) Therasius was a Cappadocian presbyter who freely offered to aid the men sent by Ambrose in their task of transporting the relics to Milan.
ii) Basil emphasizes the synergy of the body and the soul in the process of salvation. This principle is completely opposed to all forms of gnostic anti-sacramentalism. “These bones, which shared in the conflict with the blessed soul, are known to the Lord. These bones He will crown, together with that soul, in the righteous day of His requital …” Redemption concerns the entire cosmos, including its physical aspects. This is the basis upon which the Church’s theology of relics is founded.
iii) We can sense the great sadness that many Cappadocians felt when they gave up the relics of St. Dionysius. This is why Basil writes: “These relics do you receive with a joy equivalent to the distress with which their custodians have parted with them and sent them to you”, and “They have wept as men bereaved of a father and a champion.” Yet they possesed the selflessness to give them up to St. Ambrose, for “they put your joy before their own consolation.”
iv) Basil emphasizes that the relics are geniune; they are not spurious. He says, “Let none dispute; let none doubt. Here you have that unconquered athlete…There has been no room for deceit; no room for guile. I bear witness to this. Let the untainted truth be accepted by you.”