Altar Relics by Paul Turner
The relics of one or more saints are traditionally placed beneath the altar of a Catholic church. It is not obligatory, but the custom is preserved wherever possible.
Ideally, the relics are those of martyrs, but relics of other saints may be used.
The tradition recalls the practice of early Christians who gathered for the Eucharist at the tombs of martyrs. As Jesus offered himself on the cross, so the martyrs shed their blood for the growth of the church. Whenever the church gathers at an altar, we recall the sacrifice of the martyrs, and we aspire to offer our-
selves completely to Christ as they did.
To some, the Catholic custom of venerating the body parts of saints seems macabre, but it is not distant from the respect shown to a lock of hair or death mask from a deceased president, composer, or other public figure.
The altar relic should be large enough to be recognized as part of a human body, and its authenticity should be established. This is especially difficult in the relics of saints from the early days of the church.
If the origins of a relic cannot be verified, it is better not to place it beneath an altar.
When a new altar is dedicated, relics may be placed within it. The bishop places the relics in an opening beneath the table top. Relics are not to be placed on top of the altar. In the past, many relics were set into the table top, but today relics are to be kept below it, out of reverence for the altar.
After the bishop sets the relics in place, a mason may seal them in.