Venerating Relics at Mass

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Venerating Relics at Mass

ROME, 13 OCT. 2009 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university. Q: In our community when we celebrate a saint's feast day, and we have a relic of the saint present at the Mass, we offer the faithful an opportunity to venerate the relic at the end of the Mass. There seems to be a disagreement regarding the rubrics for how this should be done. I was always told that the proper veneration for the relic of a saint is a genuflection on one knee if it is the actual feast day of the saint; otherwise it is a profound bow. Someone told me that the genuflection on one knee is only for the relic of the True Cross. Could you please clarify this matter as I am unable to find the answer anywhere? Also, is it true that the faithful may receive a plenary indulgence if they receive the blessing of a newly ordained priest and that this may be obtained anytime during that priest's first year of ordination? — E.M., Bloomington, Indiana

A: According to the rules for genuflection contained in the Ceremonial of Bishops, No. 69, and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 274, the genuflection, as the most solemn sign of liturgical reverence, is "made by bending the right knee to the ground, signifies adoration, and therefore it is reserved for the Most Blessed Sacrament, as well as for the Holy Cross from the solemn adoration during the liturgical celebration on Good Friday until the beginning of the Easter Vigil.

"During Mass, three genuflections are made by the priest celebrant: namely, after the showing of the host, after the showing of the chalice , and before Communion.

"Certain specific features to be observed in a concelebrated Mass are noted in their proper place (cf. above, nos. 210-251).

"If, however, the tabernacle with the Most Blessed Sacrament is present in the sanctuary, the priest, the deacon, and the other ministers genuflect when they approach the altar and when they depart from it, but not during the celebration of Mass itself.

"Otherwise all who pass before the Most Blessed Sacrament genuflect, unless they are moving in procession.

"Ministers carrying the processional cross or candles bow their heads instead of genuflecting."

Although no longer mentioned in current legislation, the custom of making a genuflection before a publicly exposed relic of the True Cross or another relic of the Passion remains in force. Indeed, the abovementioned practice of genuflecting to the cross on Good Friday and Holy Saturday most likely began in Jerusalem with the veneration of the True Cross.

In the extraordinary form of the Roman rite there is a wider use of the genuflection. For example, during liturgical functions the altar cross receives the same genuflections as those accorded to the reserved Blessed Sacrament. The pope and others such as cardinals, bishops and some other ecclesiastical dignitaries were also reverenced with a simple genuflection albeit only within the confines of their jurisdictions.

There are also some genuflections made on pronouncing certain words, such as when remembering the Incarnation during the Nicene Creed on Christmas Day and on the feast of the Annunciation. The extraordinary form has many more such incidences than these two days.

Outside of the liturgy, popular piety has several occasions for making genuflections. For example, many Catholics have the custom of making a genuflection during the Way of the Cross at the words "We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, for through your Holy Cross you have saved the world."

Regarding the mode of venerating relics, there are few recent norms except the prohibition of placing them upon the table of the altar for public veneration (Ceremonial of Bishops 866, 921). The classical 1962 ceremonies manual in Italian by Ludovico Trimeloni, recently reissued, states that it is good, but not obligatory, to make a bow of the head toward relics of saints that are solemnly exposed for veneration. He also states that all relics, including those of the Cross, should not receive the kind of veneration usually reserved only to exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, such as removing any head covering and incensing from a kneeling position.

According to present practice, if a relic is present in the presbytery during Mass, it may only be incensed at the beginning of Mass after incensing the altar. In general, however, the veneration of saintly relics should be kept separate from the Mass. For example, it is possible to have a relic present in the presbytery during Mass, but it would not be correct to conclude the Mass by blessing the people with the relic. After Mass, however, the celebrant could return from the sacristy after removing his chasuble and direct some devotional prayers toward the saint, bless the faithful with the relic, and offer the possibility of them coming forward to kiss it.

Trimeloni states that nothing is said when blessing with a relic of the Passion. When blessing with a relic of a saint the celebrant may use an appropriate formula such as: "Through the intercession of St. N. may Almighty God bless …." Likewise, when offering the relic to be kissed, the celebrant may also use a suitable formula although it is by no means obligatory. For example: "Through his Passion and Cross (or through the intercession of St. N.) may God free you from all evil. Amen."

Trimeloni notes that all should kneel during the blessing with a relic, even for that of a saint. Perhaps this custom is what led our reader to believe that a genuflection was in order in venerating the saint's relic on his feast day.

Finally, regarding the incorrect belief that a plenary indulgence is attached to a new priest's blessing, we addressed this issue in our column of May 8, 2007.

* * *

Follow-up: Venerating Relics at Mass [10-27-2009]

After our comments on the veneration of relics (Oct. 13), a reader inquired: "I have a relic of a blessed placed in a new marble altar which was consecrated on the day that the new church was consecrated and blessed. Would it be correct to include her [the blessed's] name in the Canon of the Mass, just after the apostles?"

If, as appears to be the case, the church is dedicated to this blessed, then her name may be mentioned in those Eucharistic Prayers, such as the Third, and the Prayer for Various Needs, which allow for the addition of the patron's name. The name may not be added to Eucharistic Prayers which do not have this option.

Even if the church is dedicated to another title, the presence of significant relics in the altar would probably justify allowing this special mention of the blessed. The relevant rubric says that the mention is of the saint of the day or the patron without going into much detail. For example, "saint of the day" could be the saint celebrated in the universal calendar or any saint inscribed in the Roman Martyrology on that day, especially if he or she is remembered in some special way. The patron could also include secondary patrons or saints whose relics are found in the church.

Another reader commented: "I recall going to the Vatican basilica on All Saints' Day in the 1990s and witnessing the dozens of reliquaries on the main altar. I don't know if that is still being done, but I thought it should be noted."

This custom of displaying all of the Vatican basilica's movable relics upon the papal altar is still practiced about two or three times a year. This basilica has many long-standing customs which are legitimately preserved in virtue of its unique history and status.

The same reader added a note regarding the follow-up on the translation of the Nicene Creed: "It should be remembered that the English translation of the 1970 Missal translated the Credo directly from the original Greek under the translation principles then in effect — treating the Greek conciliar text as the ultimate source. The council fathers wrote the original Greek symbolum in the first person plural (at least in the redactions I've read). Hence, 'We believe' for the 1970 Missal in English. The first person singular is a feature of the Apostles' Creed because it is, for Latin Christians at least, a staple of the baptismal ritual. The Latin of the Roman Missal thus might be said to have adapted the Greek symbolum to the style of the most Latin of creeds, the Apostles' Creed. But both the first person singular and first person plural have ancient and venerable roots. It's high time we stop making a shibboleth of the issue."

Our reader is correct. I erred in affirming that the original Greek version was in the singular. It is, in fact, in the first person plural. Likewise most, but not all, Eastern Churches use the "We believe" form of the Creed.

I am not sure that the 1970s translators used the original Greek or were simply inspired by its use, because they obviously include the translation of the expression that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son (Filioque), the latter incision being a later and exclusively Latin addition.

We must also remember that the incorporation of the Creed to the Mass of the Roman rite occurred several centuries after its introduction into the Greek Divine Liturgy.

Finally, I fully agree with our reader that too much has been made of this issue and it should be no cause of division. Neither is more correct nor orthodox than the other, and both usages have full claim to citizenship in the Church.

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