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Vatican issues new guidelines banning sales of relics for future saints

(Wikimedia Commons/Jean-Pol GRANDMONT)The St. Peter's Square before the St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican Obelisk.

The Vatican has issued new rules banning the sales of relics of future saints, including hair strands, hands, teeth and other body parts that are often sold for high prices at online auctions.

On Saturday, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints issued guidelines detailing how body parts and cremated remains of future saints are to be obtained, transferred and protected for eventual veneration.

The new rules explicitly forbid the selling of body parts of saints, and they also prohibit the use of relics in sacrilegious rituals. It further stated that the church may need to obtain permission from surviving family members of candidates for sainthood before unearthing their remains.

Vatican officials said that the new guidelines were necessary in light of some disputes that arose between surviving family members and church officials since the rules were last revised in 2007. One case involves the legal battle over the remains of Fulton Sheen, an American archbishop who was known for his revolutionary radio and television preaching in the 1950s and 1960s.

Sheen's niece, Joan Sheen Cunningham, went to the courts in the summer of 2016 to force the Archdiocese of New York to transfer her uncle's body from the crypt of St. Patrick's Cathedral to Peoria, Illinois, where the archbishop was born, ordained, and where his sainthood cause has been launched by Peoria's bishop.

According to The Associated Press, the New York archdiocese refused Cunningham's request and appealed a 2016 lower court ruling in favor of the niece. The appeals court has heard the arguments from both parties in October and is expected to issue a ruling in several weeks.

Monsignor Robert Sarno of the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints said that it is impossible to predict whether the new guidelines would have helped avoid the legal battle over Sheen's remains, adding that it is also hard to predict the difficulties that may arise during the saint-making process.

However, he said that the new guidelines were needed anyway to provide bishops across the world with detailed instructions in multiple languages to replace the Latin instructions that only provided general rules to follow.

Under the new rules, the unearthed remains of the saint must be covered with a "decorous" cloth while a relic is being taken or authenticated, and then re-buried in clothes of similar style.

It also requires bishops to agree in writing to any transfer of any remains and call for absolute secrecy when a body is unearthed and a relic taken for eventual veneration.

The guidelines reiterate church teaching that relics from candidates for sainthood can be venerated publicly only after beatification, not before.

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