I have been told that all major Catholic churches contain within the altar a relic of a saint. Given that saints are not declared until long after the death of the person in question, and many saints die in less than favorable conditions, how does the Church go about verifying and collecting relics?
St. Maximilian Kolbe would be a good example of a saint whom we will never be able to identify any of his first degree relics, since he was burned in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. However, there are many 2nd and 3rd degree relics.
Relics are the remains of a saint. They are classified according to degrees. First degree relics are physical remains of a saint. They are most typically bones. Second degree relics are objects or items that touched a saint while he was alive. The relics of Christ's Passion would be second degree relics. Third degree relics include anything that touched other relics. Normally, it is the bones of the saints and the relics of Christ's Passion that are mentioned among the relics.
The perfectly preserved body parts of lots of European saints aren't going to be transferred to the Americas any time soon and we've got a lot of work to do to increase our output of saints.
The Code of Canon Law says:
The ancient tradition of placing relics of martyrs or other saints under a fixed altar is to be preserved, according to the norms given in the liturgical books.
So, what do the liturgical books about the degree of relics for altars?
I skimmed over this liturgical book and you can skim it over yourself, but it doesn't say anything about the degree of the relics. It does however say that relics of martyrs are preferred and that only recognizable body parts can be placed in sight. Otherwise, they're put in a box (as a reliquary) under the altar. The altar must be fixed in place so that everyone knows that the relics are there.
I've got to remember to ask what we've got for a relic in my parish. I hope someone remembers. Hopefully a priest will show up and give you a better answer.
How does the Catholic Church identify and collect relics?
During the process of beatification and canonization of the remains of a future saint or martyr are to be verified by competent authorities and if possible without any fanfare or publicity.
While reading the Instruction “Relics in the Church: Authenticity and Preservation”, one can see to how high a bar the Church has placed one establishing the manner the Church placing on obtaining and authentically preserving the relics of saints.
The Specific Procedures
§ 1. On a day and at an hour specifically established, the Bishop or the Episcopal Delegate and all those mentioned in Artt. 8-11 of the present Instruction, are to go to the place where the relics or the mortal remains are preserved.
§ 2. If the Bishop or the Episcopal Delegate consider it opportune, other persons may also be present at the recognition.
§ 3. Publicity regarding the event is to be avoided in every way.
§ 1. Before removing the relics or the mortal remains from the place in which they are preserved, if there is an authentic document of the last burial, canonical recognition or translation, it is to be read aloud by the Notary so that it may be verified if what is written in the document coincides with that which is established at the present moment.
§ 2. Whenever there is no authentic document or if the urn or the seals attached to it appear to be broken, every possible care is to be taken to assure that these are truly the relics of the Blessed or of the Saint or the mortal remains of the Servant of God or of the Venerable, who is being identified.
The relics or the mortal remains are to be placed upon a table, covered with a dignified draping, so that the anatomical experts can clean them of dust and other impurities.
§ 1. When these procedures have been completed, the anatomical experts are to inspect carefully the relics of the Blessed or of the Saint or the mortal remains of the Servant of God or of the Venerable.
§ 2. Furthermore, they are to identify analytically all the parts of the body, to describe in a detailed manner their state, and they are to put their findings down in a Report signed by them and attached to the acts.
Whenever the canonical recognition makes evident the necessity or the opportuneness of performing treatments for their preservation, after having obtained the consent of the Bishop, such treatments are to be performed by applying the most accredited techniques in that place and in the ways which the anatomical experts or other experts shall establish.
If the canonical recognition cannot be concluded in one session, the place in which it is performed is to be put under lock and key and necessary precautions are to be taken so as to avoid any theft or danger of profanation. The key will be kept by the Bishop or by the Episcopal Delegate.
§ 1. After that which is necessary to provide for the preservation of the relics or of the mortal remains, and the body has been recomposed, everything is to be eventually placed in a new urn.
§ 2. If the relics or the mortal remains are dressed in new clothes, these, as much as is possible, are to be of the same style as the previous ones.
§ 3. The Bishop or the Episcopal Delegate is to take care that no one takes anything out of the urn or places something in it.
§ 4. If possible, the old urn and everything which was found in it are to be religiously preserved; otherwise they are to be destroyed.
The minutes of all that has been done are to be placed in a container, secured with the seal of the Bishop, and placed in the urn.
To better ensure that the veneration of relics, practiced by Christians since the earliest days of the church is properly followed, the Congregation for Saints' Causes released this new instruction In 2017, aimed at upholding the integrity of the practice.
"Relics in the Church: Authenticity and Preservation," promulgated Dec. 8, 2017 and published Dec. 16, 2017 by the congregation, seeks to clarify the canonical procedures local bishops must follow during the process of verifying the authenticity of a relic and the mortal remains of a saint or blessed.
The instruction spells out specific steps pertaining to canonical recognition, extraction of fragments and creation of relics, transfer of the urn containing relics, alienation (transfer of ownership) of relics, obtaining the consent of the congregation to perform such procedures, and the steps to follow and personnel necessary for the pilgrimage of relics.
As long as the veneration of relics has existed, so too has the possibility for abusing the authentication process, desecrating the relics and misconstruing what it means to venerate a relic.
St. Jerome alluded to as much in the fifth century, when he wrote, "We do not worship, we do not adore for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the Creator." Rather, Jerome said, we venerate relics "the better to adore him whose martyrs they are."