Bones, teeth, skulls and a finger - Vatican issues new rules forbidding the trade of saints' relics

Nick Squires
Sister Amelia from the Daughters of Charity stands in front of the altar where the bloodstained undershirt worn by Pope John Paul II during the assassination attempt on May, 13, 1981, in Rome - AP

They range from the finger of “doubting” St Thomas to the head of St Catherine of Siena, but holy relics must on no account be traded or sold, the Vatican has decreed.

The Holy See issued new guidelines for the preservation and display of saints’ relics, which once fueled a thriving trade in the Middle Ages, with bits of skin, hair, teeth and organs exchanged between abbeys and monasteries.

Websites and religious artefact shops offer saintly remains, sometimes of dubious provenance, for sale to devotees.

Ebay is full of such items, including an “antique brass case with the relics of three French missionaries killed in Vietnam” and an “ornate case with a relic of St Mary Magdalene dei Pazzi, an Italian nun.”

Visitors admire the Holy Shroud, the 14ft-long linen revered by some as the burial cloth of Jesus, on display at the Cathedral of Turin. Credit: AP

One Catholic wrote on the online auction site: “Many good, faithful Catholics are buying relics on Ebay. Unfortunately,opportunity gives way to some unscrupulous sellers who deal in fakes,  forgeries and unbelievable overpricing of relics and so it is buyer beware.”

Such practises must not be tolerated, the Holy See said.

“The trade and sale of relics is absolutely prohibited,” the Congregation for the Causes of Saints decreed in a lengthy set of guidelines for dioceses throughout the Catholic world.

Nor can relics be displayed “in unauthorised or profane places” or used in sacrilegious rituals, ruled the department, which oversees the beatification and canonisation of worthy Catholics.

The dismemberment of a saint’s body is also strictly prohibited without the Vatican’s permission, the office said.

Nuns place on the altar the relics of five new saints during an open-air canonization ceremony led by Pope Benedict XVI, in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, in 2009. Credit: AP

Churches and basilica, many of them in Italy and the Holy Land, are custodians of a range of grisly relics, including the tongue of St Anthony of Padua, the body of St Mark and blood from St Januarius, the patron saint of Naples, who was martyred in the fourth century AD.

Known as San Gennaro in Italian, he is revered by many Neapolitans, with a ceremony held three times a year in which a vial of his congealed blood “miraculously” liquefies.

One of the most famous relics in the world is the Shroud of Turin, a frayed length of cloth in which Christ is believed to have been buried after his crucifixion, while the purported skull of St Valentine is kept in an ancient church close to the Circus Maximus in Rome.

The relics can be displayed in holy places only if they carry  a certificate attesting to their authenticity, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints said.