The Relic of St. Anthony
The veneration of relics, most strictly the material remains of a saint or holy person after his death, has a long tradition in the Catholic Church. Already in the mid-second century written records speak of devotion to the remains of martyrs, in particular after the death of St. Polycarp (c.156 A.D). Christians began to celebrate the memory of the martyr at his burial place, and by the end of the third century the Eucharist was celebrated at the martyrs’ tombs. After the Peace of Constantine in the early fourth century churches were often erected over the burial places, as in the case of the Basilicas of St. Peter and of St. Paul in Rome.
As the Christian faith spread there was a desire to have a link with early martyrs and with patron saints, and relics were transferred to new churches and new lands. In time, churches and monasteries weren’t considered to be of note unless they had a significant relic to be venerated. By the Middle Ages, honoring the saint, and his or her relics, on the saint’s feast day became a reason for public celebration, with processions and fairs in which all could join.
At the same time, there was also concern that the believer not “worship” a relic, for worship is given to God alone. Veneration, however, was allowed, for, St. Thomas Aquinas would explain, the relics “excite to love.” It is really the saint who is being honored, and the relic assists the giving of that honor through a visible sign and physical link with the saint.
From the practice of celebrating the Eucharist on the tombs of martyrs arose the practice of placing a stone containing a relic of a martyr within every altar. While this is no longer required by the Church, it is still done in many places where there is a desire to honor a patron or particular saint.
For centuries great care has been taken to authenticate relics, particularly through the issuing of an accompanying statement of authenticity. In the case of the relic of St. Anthony of Padua at the Shrine of St. Anthony there is no question of authenticity. New relics of the saint were obtained when the saint’s tomb was opened in anticipation of his 800th birthday, which was celebrated in 1995; the relic in the Shrine chapel is one of those. The Latin inscription indicates that it is ex cute, dried skin or tissue.
The relic, and the unique reliquary that holds it, were gifts from the Friars of the Province of St. Anthony in Padua, Italy to the Friars of the Province of St. Anthony in America (the Provincial House, or headquarters, is on the same grounds as the Shrine of St. Anthony in Ellicott City). As the property was developing as a shrine the decision to place the relic in the chapel seemed appropriate, and this took place in a special ceremony in the fall of 2000.
Today, visitors to the Shrine, especially those who have a great devotion to St. Anthony, feel close to the great Miracle Worker. With this physical presence of St. Anthony there is a little bit of Padua in America