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Marian Relics

– Answered by Father Johann Roten, S.M.

Q: Are there Marian relics?

A: Before we propose an answer to this question, let us first examine the significance of relics and the Church’s teaching on the proper veneration of relics. A relic (the word comes from the Latin reliquia meaning: remainsand relinquere meaning: to leave behind) denotes an object of a saint or martyr notably part of the body or clothes.

The teaching of the Catholic Church with regard to the veneration of relics is summed up in a decree of the Council of Trent (Sess. XXV), which enjoins on bishops and other pastors to instruct their flocks that "the holy bodies of holy martyrs and of others now living with Christ [—whose bodies were the living members of Christ and 'the temple of the Holy Spirit’ (I Cor 6:19) and who are by Him to be raised to eternal life and to be glorified] are to be venerated by the faithful, for through these [bodies] many benefits are bestowed by God on men. Referring to this conciliar document the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) explains the veneration of relics in article 1674. The Book of Canon Law (CIC) promulgated in 1983 deals with the proper usage and cult of relics in canon 1190 [see below].

When speaking of relics, we distinguish primary or first class relics, which are strictly parts of the body and secondary relics, which are objects that have been touched and or used by the saint. Bits of cloth that have been touched to an actual first or second class relic are called third class relics. 

Since the Blessed Virgin Mary was assumed bodily into heaven, we do not possess any first class relics of her with the exception perhaps of some hair. "Parts of Mary’s hair were claimed to be in the Messina Cathedral in Sicily, after being brought to Piazza, Sicily, by the Crusaders; various other places also claimed this relic."1 Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) allegedly had hair of Mary and so did Pope Sergius II, which is now enshrined in Emmerich/Germany. There are still several other places where Mary’s hair is reportedly venerated: in 1148 in Saint Eucharius-Matthias and in 1209 in Saint Mary of the Martyrs in Trier as well as in 1170 in the Cistercian Abbey of Himmerode and in 1282 in the Benedictine Monastery of Prüfening; all of these sites are in Germany. In 1283 Mary’s hair has been deposited in a reliquary at the Augustinian Monastery in Ranshofen, Austria as well as in Linköping, Sweden.2

Among the secondary relics whose authenticity is naturally dubious a variety of items is known:

• Mary’s garment and cincture/sash are considered among the most significant Marian relics. The Byzantine Church celebrates a feast in commemoration of the translation of the cincture to Constantinople (Calcopratreia Church and later to Blacherne Church) on August 31 the last day of the Byzantine Year. The feast of the deposition of Mary’s vestment/garment is celebrated in the Byzantine Rite on July 2.

• A letter supposedly sent by Mary to the first Christians of Messina. Investigations have shown that its actual author was Constantine Laskaris in the fifteenth century. Another letter written to Mary by Saint Ignatius of Antioch and her response proved to be forged.3

• Mary’s engagement ring is venerated in Perugia/Italy and her wedding ring in Weihenlinden/Germany.4

• There are a number of Mary’s veils, which are highly acclaimed. The oldest known originated in Constantinople and belonged to Charlemagne. Later Charles II (the Bald) gave it to the Cathedral at Chartres/France in 877. There are also veil relics in Brixen/Italy, as well as in churches in Cologne and Mainz/Germany and in Prague.5

• Mary’s shoes were venerated at the Cistercian Abbey Maria Ophoven. However they were stolen in 1826 and never found again.6

• In a wider sense places in the Holy Land where the Blessed Virgin Mary lived as well as the House of Loreto in Italy are esteemed as secondary relics.

Pilgrims to the Holy Land and participants in the crusades obtained these and other relics as souvenirs. References from the sixth century, for example, give testimony of a stone on which Mary supposedly rested while fleeing to Egypt, of a tree, which gave shade to the Holy Family while in Egypt and of a chair on which Mary sat during the Annunciation. Other relics were rendered through legends as, for example, Mary’s comb and a vessel she used to offer a drink to Baby Jesus. The authenticity of these relics is questionable as is documented in the Summa Mariana by J.H.Schütz. On the other hand, we cannot dismiss them as fake either. But even should a Catholic venerate as a relic some object, which is not authentic, such devotion is at least well meant, and always reverently directed towards the one whom the object is believed to represent. "In the final analysis, the most important relic of Mary that we have is a spiritual one – her abiding influence on Christians over the centuries and her comforting presence to us through her Divine Son."7

CIC c 1190

Can. 1190

§1 It is absolutely wrong to sell sacred relics.

§2 Distinguished relics, and others which are held in great veneration by the people, may not validly be in any way alienated nor transferred on a permanent basis, without the permission of the Apostolic See.

§3 The provision of §2 applies to images which are greatly venerated in any church by the people.

[1] Dictionary of Mary © 1985 by Catholic Book Publishing Co., N.Y. page 291f.

[2] Cf. R. Bäumer, L. Scheffczyk Marienlexikon, vol. V, EOS Verlag Erzabtei St. Ottilien 1993, p. 453f.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Dictionary of Mary © 1985 by Catholic Book Publishing Co., N.Y. page 292.

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