RELICS and Nhil Obstat and Imprimatur

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Question from chris on 5/29/2008:

Dear Fathers Please forgive for asking two topics 1) Please can you tell me what teh 1983 Code says about relics, especially in regard to placing in altars (through of course this is liturgical law) how does the 1917 and 1983 codes diffeer in their treatment of relics? 2) What material/matter slots into each of the three classes of relics? 3)What is the Nhil obstat and imprimatur and when and why where they abolished? I am happy to be refered to appropiate links. kind regards chris
Answer by Rev. Mark J. Gantley, JCL on 6/4/2008:

The Rite of Dedication of an Altar states: "5. All the dignity of the altar rests on its being the Lord's table. Thus the martyr's body does not bring honor to the altar; rather the altar does honor to the martyr's tomb. For it is altogether proper to erect altars over the burial place of martyrs and other saints or to deposit relics beneath altars as a mark of respect and as a symbol of the truth the the sacrifice of its members has its source in the sacrifice of the Head. Thus, 'the triumphant victims come to their rest in the place where Christ is victim: he, however, who suffered for all is on the altar; they who have been redeemed by his sufferings are beneath the altar.' (St. Ambrose). This arrangement would seem to recall in a certain manner the spiritual vision of the Apostle John in the Book of Revelation: 'I saw underneath the altar the souls of all the poeple who have been killed on account of the word of God, for witnessing to it.' His meaning is that although the saints are right called Christ's witnesses, the witness of blood has a special significance that only the relics of martyrs beneath the altar express in its entirety."

"11. It is fitting to continue the tradition in the Roman liturgy of placing relics of martyrs or other saints beneath the altar. But the following should be noted: a. Such relics should be of a size sufficient for them to be recognizable as parts of human bodies. Hence excessively small relics of one or more saints must not be place beneath an altar. b. The greatest care must be taken to determine whether the relics in question are authentic. It is better for an altar to be dedicated without relics than to have relics of doubtful authenticity placed beneath it. c. A reliquary must not be placed on the altar or set into the table of the altar, but placed beneath the table of the altar, as the design of the altar permits."

None of this is in the current code of canon law but is part of the Roman Pontifical.

In the 1917 code, canons 1281-1289 deal with relics, regarding transferring ownership, authenticity, etc. The current 1983 code has just one canon on relics -- canon 1190. If you have specific questions, please submit them. Despite the simplification, I don't think that there is any drastic change in the principles of the canons. The changes were in the liturgical books. Perhaps the liturgy forum can help you more with that.

The three traditional classes of relics are: 1. Parts of the body 2. Things belonging to the saint (e.g., a prayerbook) 3. Material touched to the body of the saint

Only first class relics are considered for placement beneath the altar.

With regard to ecclesiastical approbation being given to books and other writings (using the terms nihil obstat, imprimatur, etc.), the system was never abolished. The related canons in the current code are canons 822-832.

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