The church has always felt the need for giving its followers positive and emphatic examples that will direct their thoughts toward the truth that “will make them free” (John 8:32). The church has found this example in the martyrs who valued their faith above all things and were willing to surrender life itself in order to preserve that faith intact. A veneration of the relics of martyrs has therefore been an integral part of Christian devotion from earliest times.
However exaggerated some developments of this veneration were in the past, they do not vitiate the fundamental concept. In its relic chapel, Saint John’s Abbey Church preserves this authentic and primitive Christian tradition in a setting that recalls the best elements of this witness of its martyrs. In the center is an altar built over the complete remains of the martyr, Saint Peregrine. This practice is reminiscent of the ancient custom of erecting altars over the tombs of martyrs, perhaps best exemplified today by Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, which is built over the tomb of the apostle Peter. As in typical catacomb chapels, the altar-tomb in the Abbey Church is surrounded by the burial niches of many other martyrs, though here the niches are occupied not by the bodies of saints but by reliquaries containing fragments of their bones. The random shapes and arrangement of the niches suggest the spontaneous character of the catacomb burials, which were carried out on momentary notice and without design. This random arrangement of the burial niches of the relic chapel is continued in the windows extending along the north wall of the lower church to the right and left of the shrine. The theme of catacombs and martyrs therefore becomes the dominating feature of the rear wall of the Assumption Chapel.