Relics and Icons

With the recent completion of the North American tour of the relic of Saint Don Bosco and with Pope Benedict XVI, along with millions of other pilgrims, visiting the Shroud of Turin during its public exhibition earlier this year, many in our community have been wondering about relics and pilgrimages. Aren’t these things of the past?

While the worldwide pilgrimage of a relic of a saint, or even a papal visit to what is for the faithful a symbol of God the Son’s Incarnation and an “icon” of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection may attract some attention, in the minds of many the devotion shown to such an icon by the Holy Father, not only with a visit but also by a public message about the Shroud’s meaning, has raised questions about the practices of the Catholic Church in relation to pilgrimages, indulgences, and even special years of jubilee.

Library research tip: Reference Universe is an amazing tool you can use to discover where concepts like relics, icons, and millions of other things are discussed in authoratative print and online reference books to which Falvey gives you access. To use Reference Universe go to E-Reference Resources on the Library Website.

Pilgrimages in the early church

Pilgrimages by Christians to holy sites began as a devotional act in the early church. Visiting the tombs of the Apostles in the West (St. Peter’s in Rome, St. James’ in Spain) seems to have become more popular in response to the Muslim conquest of the Holy Land (viz. in earnest beginning with the destruction of Holy Sepulchre by Islamic forces A.D. 1009).

Economic factors involved in making the long trip also had an effect. Holy Years involving a pilgrimage to Rome began by papal decree (Pope Boniface VIII, Antiquorum habet) in response to popular demand for reparational pilgrimages involving the visiting of sacred shrines, and which grew out of indulgences offered to penitential crusaders. Confession and the hearing of masses were traditionally required.

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The promise of plenary indulgences is based on the power of the keys granted by Jesus Christ to the hierarchy of the Catholic Church (Cf. Matthew 16:19) and on the idea that if someone is doing what they ought to do it is meritorious. In connection with the office of the keys (confession and absolution), pilgrimages may be considered acts of anticipatory penance. When recognized as such by the Pope and the Magisterium, the superabundance of merit from Christ and the Saints in satisfaction of God’s justice for sins committed may be dispensed from the treasury of merit. 

Extraordinary sacrificial acts of devotion including the replacement of martyrdom by the taking of religious vows that involve peril had become commonplace (i.e., religious life and missionary activities) and were in line with the ancient Christian practice involving consecrated places, especially in the Holy Land, which were even encouraged by sovereign approbation at least since the Edict of Milan A.D. 313.

Library research tip: When researching a controversial subject, it is best to use not only relevant but also accurate and objective sources of information which Falvey makes available to you 24/7. It is often best to start by reviewing the Subject Guides keyed to disciplines taught at Villanova University. Begin by taking a look at the subject guide menu and go to the subject guide for the kind of class for which you are doing a research paper or project.

Holy Years of Jubilee

Finally the lack of access to the Holy Land due to established Muslim control (since the fall of Acre A.D. 1291) probably contributed to the development of the jubilee celebration in the city of Rome and the building up of local holy sites. It also brought together representatives from the whole of Christendom to the “eternal city” and allowed for a demonstration of the spiritual bond all Catholics have with the Vicar of Christ, the heir of Peter, the holy pontiff as visible head of the Catholic Church -- something which is important and the reason why Pope Boniface VIII announced the year of jubilee in A.D. 1300. Perhaps this also explains the jubilees of 1628 & 1629 during the pontificate of Urban VIII that were to assuage for the Thirty Years War. Pope John Paul II declared an extraordinary Roman Holy Year in 1983.

Pilgrimages to Rome

Saint Peter’s Basilica on the site of St. Peter’s tomb and Saint Paul-outside-the-walls (the ancient cathedral church of the Pope, the Bishop of Rome) on the site of St. Paul’s tomb were designated for obvious reasons as pilgrimage sites. Both Apostles were martyred in Rome ca. A.D. 65. Many churches had also been built in Rome since the time of Emperor Constantine in honor of the many Roman saints and martyrs of Christianity.

Fifteen visits to sacred sites including the basilicas during the Holy Year (30 for citizens of Rome) was the proscribed number. The intervals between Holy Years was reduced over time from 100 years to 50 to 33, until eventually the custom of a Roman jubilee being celebrated every 25 years was established by Pope Paul II in 1470. By this time two more Roman basilicas had been added to the list of approved pilgrimage sites (in addition to St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s): St. John Lateran, in honor of the beloved disciple into whose care Jesus gave his mother Mary at the crucifixion (John 19:26-27), and St. Mary Major, in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ.

In acts of papal generosity an extension of indulgences was also granted to other sacred pilgrimage sites closer to the point of origin for pilgrims in many places and at various times, a practice that still continues. In the middle ages the location of relics were invariably involved. The indulgences afforded to local sites (ad instar Jubilaei) were eventually suspended during the Holy Year to encourage the pilgrimage to Rome (cf., Sumption, Jonathan. Pilgrimage: an image of mediaeval religion. 424).

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The giving of alms that was equal to at least a generous portion of the cost of a pilgrimage in lieu of making the trip to Rome or decreasing the number of visitations required to shorten the amount of time spent in Rome are examples of the will of the faithful becoming recognized practice codified in law and papal statements concerning Jubilee indulgences. The necessary food and housing for all those pilgrims were factors that seem to have had an effect in this regard. The ceremonies such as the opening of the holy doors established by Pope Alexander VI in A.D. 1500 are those still observed for Holy Year celebrations since then (New Catholic Encyclopedia. 2nd Ed. Vol. 7. 57).

Holy Years of the Modern Era

“The jubilee of A.D. 1450 marked a renewal of the practice after the disorders of the Great Schism” (The Papacy: an encyclopedia. Vol. 2. 725), i.e., after the confusion of the Avignon Papacy. The sack of Rome during the pontificate of Clement VII in the year A.D. 1527, including the desecration of relics, the pillaging of shrines and the raping of Catholic religious by rebellious Protestant soldiers from the army of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, was just two years after the Holy Year of A.D. 1525. Official Holy Years 1575-1675 are: A.D. 1575 (during the pontificate of Pope Gregory XIII); A.D. 1600 (during the pontificate of Clement VIII); A.D. 1625 (during the pontificate of Urban VIII); A.D. 1650 (during the pontificate of Innocent X); and A.D. 1675 (during the pontificate of Clement X).

This period apparently was the heyday of the Roman Holy Year jubilees (Cf. The Papacy: an encyclopedia. Vol. 2. 726-727).  It was during this time, too, that the sessions of the nineteenth ecumenical council, commonly called the Council of Trent, occurred (A.D. 1545-1563); that St. Peter’s Basilica underwent a resplendent transformation (ca. A.D. 1546-1656); Catholic lands were aligning themselves with Protestantism (Saxony in A.D. 1520, Sweden in A.D. 1527, England in A.D. 1534-1563, Denmark/Norway/Baltic States in A.D. 1536-1539, and Romania in A.D. 1545); that the Peace of Augsburg was settled (A.D. 1555); that the French Huguenots (A.D. 1559-1598), the Scots (A.D. 1560), and the Dutch (A.D. 1566) were being converted to Protestantism; and that the Peace of Westphalia was enacted (A.D. 1648).

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Plenary indulgences and holy year pilgrimages

A Holy Year has been declared and celebrated in Rome every quarter century from 1400-1775, twice in the 1800s, and every 25 years since A.D. 1900. Plenary indulgences are not only a component of Holy Year jubilees. They are regularly granted to this very day for sacrificial acts of devotion associated with confession and mass, during the seasons of Lent and Easter for example. (See, post-Vatican II papal decree from 1967, Indulgentiarum Doctrina). A plenary indulgence replaces the need for temporal punishment (penance) and grants the sacramental state of innocence achieved in accord with the perfection of the penitent’s contrition. It is efficacious to the individual based on participation in a communal act of faith and devotion.

Pilgrimages and visitation to the holy sites in Rome are particular to Holy Year jubilees. Although relics play a smaller role in the devotional life of ordinary Catholics today, the inclusion of local sites as destinations for pilgrimages during a Holy Year (at the discretion of the local ordinary, that is the bishop) remains in force, evidenced by guidebooks to Jubilee pilgrimages for the millennial Holy Year A.D. 2000 (see also, The Gift of the Indulgence and other plenary and special indulgences declared by the Apostolic Penitentiary via Vatican Web Site).

Library research tip: Falvey makes it possible for your information universe to be relatively limitless. Free research sharing services offered by the Library allow you to request a book or article without regard to where it comes from in the world. Utilize these services by going to the Interlibrary Loan Services portal. You of course need to know what it is you want first, which you can do by consulting WorldCat or other online databases, or with a research librarian.

Further reading

Some historically significant documents: the decrial of Clermont and the indulgence granted crusaders by Pope Urban II from A.D. 1095; Pope Boniface VIII’s Antiquorum habet from A.D. 1300; the jubilee bull Unigenitus Dei Filius by Pope Clement VI from 1343; Ineffabilis Providentia declaring the 25 year interval by Pope Paul II from A.D. 1470; the indulgence decrial Cum Postquam by Pope Leo X from A.D. 1518, and the statements about indulgences made at ecumenical councils Constance, Lateran V, and Trent in particular (Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils. 2 vols. N.P. Tanner, Ed.).

Two 15th century popes offered indulgences for the dead, an idea most Protestants reject, but one that the Catholic Church had promulgated since before that time based on ancient sacred tradition (cf. Second Maccabees 12:40-45). Note a correct list for the “conditions for the winning of Indulgences” is given in Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma by Ludwig Ott, pg. 444. See also, Indulgences under “The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation” in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.