Opinion: the relief at the safe retrieval of Notre-Dame Cathedral's priceless treasures shows the abiding power of religious relics

As the world mourns with Paris at the devastating impact of the fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral, social media and news reports also rejoice in the safe retrieval of the Cathedral’s holy relics. As the blaze raged, early reports feared the loss of Notre-Dame’s priceless treasures and art, with the Crown of Thorns, reputed relic of Christ’s Crucifixion, placed top of the list.

On Monday evening, the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo quelled these fears and praised the heroic efforts of the firefighters, police and municipal agents who formed a human chain to save Notre-Dame’s works. "The crown of thorns, the tunic of Saint Louis and several other major works are now in a safe place", she tweeted.

In our secular modern age, it is perhaps surprising that such palpable fear, and relief, would be expressed over religious relics. However, the cult of relics has been an integral part of the Catholic faith since the earliest days of the Church, and continues to inspire considerable popular devotion, despite declining church attendance.

In early Christianity, the veneration of relics became a manifestation of the cult of saints. They are regarded as extensions of the saint’s body and share its sacred quality. Proximity here is key. Saints had grown closer to Christ through death and this intimacy could, and can, be shared with those on earth who nurtured relationships with the saints. The tangibility of relics ensures the appeal of the cult. Through the perceived intervention of the saint they belonged to, relics were used for many purposes, for example, to heal the sick, to effect favourable changes in weather and to ensure victory in battle.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Monsignor Hugh Connolly, chaplain to the Collège des Irlandais in Paris on the significance of Notre-Dame Cathedral to the city

In Late Antiquity, relics were used as diplomatic gifts to facilitate the nurturing of relationships and alliances, creating a social as well as geographical network of solidarity, obligation, and reciprocity. The use of relics in church and secular politics became a key feature of the cult of relics throughout the medieval era, as well as into the early modern and modern periods.

In the Middle Ages, the circulation of relics bridged distances and differences between territories, expedited the creation of military networks and smoothed relations between princes. As Patrick J. Geary points out in Living with the Dead in the Middle Ages, "their ability to substitute for public authority, protect and secure the community, determine the relative status of individuals and churches, and provide for the community’s economic prosperity" ensured a lasting role for relics within the medieval Church and society.

King Louis IX obtained the Crown of Thorns, along with other relics of the Passion of Christ, from Constantinople in 1246. He built the ornate Sainte Chapelle in Paris, essentially an oversized reliquary, specially to house these items, though some had more recently to moved to Notre-Dame. These relics were crucial to the king’s efforts to create Paris as a new centre of Christendom in the Medieval world. In this way, these relics became locked into the identity of Paris itself. The loss of the Crown of Thorns would not only be grievous to Catholics, but it would symbolise an equally egregious blow to the city, her history and her inhabitants.

In his condemnation of the cult of relics in 1561, John Calvin criticised the ease with which people could be seduced by "this most perverse kinde of superstition". But while Calvin recognised the appeal of saints and relics as a "natural addiction" (which was exploited by the Catholic church), by seeking to eradicate it completely he perhaps did not fully appreciate how ingrained the cult was, and is, in the human psyche.

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As we have seen in Paris this week, the cult of relics is not just medieval or Catholic and the veneration of saints and their remains tends to feature in most faiths and religions. Despite the waning support for the church in increasingly secularised and multicultural societies such as Ireland and France, relics are still a force in popular devotion today. Indeed, the preservation and veneration of bodies and objects associated with important figures in society, such as Elvis or Lenin, is an age-old and widespread human trait.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ