Thomas J. Craughwell has written a very interesting book: Saints Preserved: An Encyclopedia of Relics. It consists of entries on various saints with a little history of their relics: the saints’ possessions or body parts that have been preserved.
In the early Church, the mortal remains of martyrs were taken for burial, and Masses were celebrated at their tombs on the anniversaries of their deaths. Over time great churches were built on these spots (St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome is a good example) and soon even non-martyrs recognized for their virtue and holiness were honored in this way.
Not all the relics mentioned in the book are body parts; they also includes various church’s claims to possess the nails that held Christ to the cross (along with other objects connected to the Crucifixion); the Shroud of Turin; and the Black Madonna of Czestochowa (which, according to legend, was painted by St. Luke on the Holy Family’s kitchen table).
The stories behind the relics demonstrate the remarkable connection the faithful have with the saints. Many relics survived times of persecution only through the heroic efforts to smuggle them out of threatened churches to safety.
One of the book’s aims is to “de-mystify” relics. To non-Catholics relics can seem macabre, silly, or even superstitious. In his introduction Mr. Craughwell does a good job of laying out the Church’s understanding of relics and the proper veneration due to them; this would be a useful section for those not familiar with relics to read.
If I have one complaint it is that most of the entries have less to do about specific relics and consist mainly of biographical information about the saint in question. I would have appreciated more in-depth information about the relics themselves, especially if any miracles are connected to them. I also would have liked more pictures, although I understand the economics of publishing enough to know that too many pictures can be cost-prohibitive.
One other caveat I’d like to add: in the introduction Mr. Craughwell mentions that there is a busy online market in relics. While this may be true, it is against Church law and a sin to sell sacred objects and relics — so please don’t try to buy them online!
Despite these drawbacks Saints Preserved offers a unique insight into this rarely-discussed aspect of the Church’s veneration of saints — and an interesting read, too.
Disclosure: I received my copy of this book for free through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer Program.