Relics & Reformation

At the close of the Middle Ages, relics played a central role in society, ranging from the judicial process—oaths were sworn on them—to pilgrimages that fuelled local economies. But after 1523 no new saints were canonized by the Church for 65 years. This reflected a profound debate that swept western Europe in the 16th century—the Reformation. What was to be the role of saints and relics in this new world?

For some Christians, there was no role at all. Reformers often considered the question of biblical authority central. Some, such as John Calvin, who published his Treatise on Relics in 1543, concluded that saints were not intercessors and that relics were not supported by the Bible. However, following over half a century of reflection, the Roman Church reindorsed both, and, in 1588, introduced new procedures that would remain in place until 1969. Three centuries of new saints subsequently received papal recognition, many of whom appear in Bishop Grimes’s collection.

“Who would not laugh to hear that the bell blessed by Benno drove off bad weather?” The original reformer, Martin Luther, was deeply sceptical of some relics, notably those of Benno of Meissen, one of the last saints canonized in 1523. But, while highlighting scriptural issues, Luther agreed that many men and women whether it was Francis or more local figures, such as Elizabeth of Thuringia—were doubtless saints. And his position on relics, at least at first, was similar to his attitude to images: “We can have them or not have them”. His own patron was, after all, one of Europe’s largest relic collectors—Frederick the Wise of Saxony owned 17,000 relics.

Luther certainly disagreed with the destruction of images and relics. He was much criticized by reformers who thought that destruction was exactly what should take place. A striking—highly political—example was the destruction of the shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury in 1538. The Church of England initially followed Calvin’s view, declaring in 1563: “The Romish doctrine concerning … Relics, and also Invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture”. Yet a century later, Thomas Lowick defended relics in the case of St George, citing scriptural examples of the miracle-working power of St Paul’s handkerchief, St Peter’s shadow, and the prophet Elisha’s bones. And by the 20th century, the Church of England had reinstated pre-Reformation saints in the calendar of those it commemorated—including Thomas of Canterbury. At the 9th Lambeth Conference in 1958, it even introduced a process for adding post Reformation individuals, albeit without the prefix “saint”. These included Luther and—possibly to his dismay—Calvin.

A number of post-Reformation saints who arrived with Bishop Grimes also appear in the Church of England’s calendar. They include Philip Neri, Rome’s gentle 16th-century reformer, Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit Order, and educators from the 17th to the 19th century including Vincent de Paul, François de Sales, and John Bosco. A key difference between the Roman and reformed churches, however, lies in post-Reformation attitudes towards relics. In the Roman Church, relics continue to be regarded as they were before 1523.

In December 2017, the post-1969 body responsible for saints, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, issued new regulations that divided relics into two types significant and non-significant, the latter “little fragments of the body … as well as objects that have come in direct contact”. It set out the procedures governing their display and use, and repeated prohibitions on their sale that go back to the late Roman Empire. Echoing a long-standing tradition, it also placed a strong emphasis on their veneration, rather than their worship.