Frazier, T. (1997). Holy Relics: The Scriptural and Historical Basis for the Veneration of Relics of the Saints. Ben Lomond, California: Conciliar Press.
A BOOK REVIEW
DEACON MARK KOSCINSKI D.LITT.
Many people, Catholics included, are perplexed by the veneration of relics. This booklet (26 page of text plus two pages of excellent endnotes) is a very handy summary of the scriptural, historical, and theological basis for the veneration of relics. It is particularly useful for Eastern Christians, as the author approaches the topic from the perspective of Eastern Christian theology.
The author takes great pains to differentiate between the terms worship and veneration. This terminology was adopted by the Seventh Ecumenical Council. Only God is worthy of worship (latria), while the friends of God i.e. the saints, are worthy of veneration, or honor (dulia). As a result, their relics may be honored or venerated. Frazier makes an interesting, but unproven point about why other Christian denominations may have difficulty with the veneration or relics. He posits the “low church” nature of their services look in many ways like the veneration we render to the relics and the saints. These denominations and their adherents simply do not see the distinction Eastern Christians make between worship and veneration. The author believes the cure to this problem is open-mindedness among Christian groups. Alas, if it were only that simple. We all bring a great deal of “baggage” to our religious convictions, and they are not so easily dispensed with.
Frazier comprehensively surveys Holy Scripture in various parts of the booklet. He explains why the veneration of relics is Biblical in nature, particularly their association with the miraculous. The author does an outstanding job of showing the Fathers of the Church approved of the veneration of relics. The deaths of St. Polycarp and St. Ignatius, two of the early martyrs of the church are discussed. Even at this early date Christians took such great care in collecting and venerating the remains of these saints. St. Jerome, one of the four great Latin Doctors of the Universal Church, is cited for writing a book entitled Against Vigilantius, a priest who challenged the veneration of relics in the early fifth century.
A rather amusing digression is the discussion of the myth most relics are fakes. The author obviously disagrees with this assessment. Frazier uses two famous examples very relevant to the Eastern Church: the True Cross, and the Head of John the Baptist. Many churches, including my home parish, claim to have a splinter from the True Cross. John Calvin famously quipped if you put all of those splinters together, you would have needed three hundred people to carry that cross. Frazier cites a nineteenth century study claiming the total fragments of the True Cross in existence at the time added up to five million cubic centimeters, but the typical Roman cross would have consisted of 180 million cubic centimeters of wood. Another example of myth debunking concerns the Head of St. John the Baptist. Most people assume the various competing claims of churches that claim to have the Head of John the Baptist are spurious. In reality the head was also fragmented like the True Cross. Frazier makes the rather thought provoking claim the issue of false relics was never as prevalent in the Eastern Church because of its well-developed theology of the icon.
This is a book well worth reading. It is well written and presents critical information in a compact, concise manner. Any reader will gain essential knowledge when discussing the veneration of relics and icons with those who are not believers. The reader might also learn a thing or two about his faith as well.