Confessions of a Simonist: Relics & Simony

inquisitionI didn’t mean to commit a crime, let alone one of “the most abominable of crimes.” Luckily, the first three words in the definition of simony according to most Catholic sources are “a deliberate intention,” so I’m good, right? Well… in the midst of my simoniacal spree, I learned what I was doing, and I did it anyway. Also, canon law 1190:1 is pretty clear: “It is absolutely forbidden to sell sacred relics.” So, I’m guilty as charged. (If this upsets you, feel free to refer me to the pope for excommunication. But that doesn’t seem the Christian thing to do. I will let you decide.)

Here is a list of some helpful terms, defined for us from the Catechism and the good old dictionary:

  • Sacramentals are sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments. […] By them men are disposed to receive the chief effect of the sacraments, and various occasions in life are rendered holy.
  • Relics, in this context, are objects of religious veneration, especially a piece of the body or a personal item of a saint.
  • Simony is defined as the buying or selling of spiritual things.

So to put this in context for the purposes of my anecdote: I am a big fan of sacramentals, especially rosaries. I also have a decent appreciation for the macabre, and therefore also love relics. In my zeal to obtain relics, I turned to the same source any other enterprising, scheming thinker would turn to: eBay. And I committed simony. Again and again. Mostly buying, but once — when the car needed repair — selling. Obviously I’m not alone in this type of behavior. After all, it takes two to simonize. To be clear, I doubt I’m going to hell (for this), and I doubt God cares. (If He does, I desperately need to rethink my conception of God.) And at any rate, like most folks, I don’t have a Canon lawyer on retainer.

relicsIt all started innocently enough: I placed a bid on a fragment of a bone from St. Augustine. (And who wouldn’t?) I did not, for what it’s worth, expect to win. After all, it came with a “certificate of authenticity,” and who was I to possess such a marvel? Two weeks later, St. Augustine’s bone shard was resting comfortably in a packing peanuts-laden box set outside my front door, via International mail. Oh, my. That happened.

relicsIt felt thrilling opening the box. Although there was no Hallelujah chorus magically filling my dining room, I’m pretty sure I filled that part in manually. There it was. One of the most important men in the world’s itsy-bitsy, teeny-tiny bone fragment. It was in a circular reliquary, and it had a very official-looking red wax seal keeping it shut and tamper-proof. After staring at it in wonderment for much longer than I typically look at anything that doesn’t move or change, I prepared a spot in my home to keep it in, suitably reverent and sublime. Periodically, over the next few days, my gaze would pause on it, ensuring it was both dust-free and unmolested. Sometimes I looked extra hard. Was it weeping?

My initial foray into simony went, I thought, exceedingly well. (Both simonists having left positive feedback for one another.) Then I went berserk. St. Lawrence, I liked him! Let me find a bone chip to put next to St. Augustine’s! St. John Bosco, my patron saint, his hair, too, was available! This was too easy. And too easily out of control. My little collection grew exponentially. One of my spare bedrooms was becoming a regular ossuary.

true cross relicsFirst class relics, which are actual pieces of the deceased saint, or items associated with the earthly life of Christ (think: the manger, cross, or Holy Grail), were more difficult to find. I obtained several anyway. Besides the ones named above, I located the piece de resistance: a splinter of the true cross.

It came inside a richly adorned, cross-shaped reliquary, plated with silver that had obviously aged over more than a century. It, too, had the wonderful, reassuring red wax seal. (This one, I later felt guilt over, and put it back into simony circulation, eventually selling it to a priest. Also a simonizer, apparently.)

Second class relics, typically small bits cut from the clothing worn by saints, or items the saints personally used, were slightly easier to find, but were often of poor quality. All the same, I managed to pick up second class relics of a variety of minor (i.e., I had never heard of them) saints. I even got a second-class relic from Blessed John Paul II, in the form of a small piece of one of his papal cassocks. (This relic, believe it or not, I got legitimately, and without breaking canon law: I simply asked nicely for it from the Vatican.)

Third class relics, which are typically pieces of cloth touched to a first or second class relic, are abundant. The reason for the abundance is exactly what you think: anybody in close enough proximity to touch something to a first or second class relic, can make one. I could, if I so desired, walk up to my spare bedroom with a handkerchief and a pair of scissors, and literally make hundreds of them in the course of an hour. These went cheap, as you can imagine. I probably have two score of these.

But surely these relics are fraudulent, you think. And even if they are real, so what? What does an ancient piece of cloth have to do with anything? To answer that question, let’s turn to a story from the gospel of Matthew:

And behold, a woman who had suffered from a hemorrhage for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment;  for she said to herself, “If I only touch his garment, I shall be made well.”  Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well.

Photo of Christ healing the bleeding woman. From the catacombs of Rome.
Photo of Christ healing the bleeding woman. From the catacombs of Rome.

You see, it actually isn’t the object itself — or cloth that touched the object — that is important. And maybe none of them are real. It’s the faith that matters. This woman had been suffering for 12 years, but through both her faith in the healing power of Christ, and her sheer audacity to find healing in the slightest touch of just the fringe of his garments, the woman was healed. And Christ said, “Your faith has made you well.” So although the items themselves are insignificant, they act as sacramentals that increase the faith of the beholder. And with faith, anything is possible.

relics of st. gabrielMy adventures in simony started when I was about 28, and lasted about a year. Interestingly, I, too, had been suffering for 12 years. From the time I was 16 until I was 28, I had fallen away from the church. I desperately wanted to believe. And although the ends almost never justify the means (in my humble opinion), there was something about my experience with these relics that brought me closer to the Church, and closer to God. I can’t honestly recommend that anyone else take this route, but I’m not so much of a hypocrite that I would scorn those who do. And I don’t have any regrets.

To learn more about relics, I highly recommend the book Relics
by Joan Carroll Cruz. (And for a real taste of the macabre, check out her The Incorruptibles: A Study of the Incorruption of the Bodies of Various Catholic Saints and Beati.)


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