The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states that: “The religious sense of the Christian people has always found expression in various forms of piety… such as the veneration of relics, visits to sanctuaries, pilgrimages…etc.” (CCC 1674)
From the earliest days of the Church, Christians have revered the physical remains and personal possessions of saints who lived exemplary lives of holiness or suffering and dying for their faith. Many faithful made pilgrimages to the sites of their deaths or burials, praying as they went for the protection, intercession and inspiration of these holy people. Over the centuries, shrines and sanctuaries were built on these sites to create a proper place for pilgrims to attend Mass, receive thesacraments, and venerate the saints’ relics. The practice continues to this day.
- What exactly are relics?
The word relic is derived from the Latin word reliquiae – meaning “remains”. The Church recognises three kinds of relics:
1st class: these are the mortal remains of the saints, and comprise any part of a saint’s body, whether skin, bone, organs, hair or even blood.
2nd class: these are things that were owned or used by saints during their lifetimes such as articles of clothing, crucifixes, rosaries, Bibles, and include the instruments of their torture or death e.g. the wood of the cross on which they were crucified, or the sword used to behead them.
3rd class: these are items that have touched a 1st class relic. These include the soil from the saints’ graves, the remains of their casket, or newer items such as cloths, rosaries or medals that are pressed against a 1st class relic.
- Why do we venerate relics?
The tradition of venerating relics seems morbid and downright superstitious to many people. Whilst it is true that this devotion can be abused as superstition by those who are ignorant of its true meaning, the Church has always made a careful distinction between the worship appropriate to God and the veneration appropriate to saints. The Church has also distinguished between the reverence paid to God Himself through the saints, and the veneration of relics of the saints.
St Jerome taught in the 4th century: “We do not worship relics, we do not adore them, for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the Creator. But we venerate the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore Him whose martyrs they are.”
In this era of new media, looking through old photographs, handwritten letters and digitally re-mastered VHS tapes may affect us emotionally as memories rush back of loved ones who are no longer with us, but whom we treasure in our hearts. So it is with relics of the saints: in the same way that we kiss the photograph of a loved one or a precious memento they have left us as a sign of love for that person with no superstitious connotations, so our veneration of a relic is a sign of our love for that saint and for God.
- Does the Bible mention relics?
Psalm 116:15 declares, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.” The Bible tells of miraculous events worked by God through the tangible but otherwise powerless relics of His holy ones to manifest His intangible healing power.
In the Old Testament, Elisha was a great and holy prophet of God. In 1 Kings 13:20-21, we are told of a man who was thrown into the grave of Elisha; “as soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he came to life and stood on his feet.”
And in the New Testament, St Matthew writes in Chapter 14:35-36, “[They] brought all who were sick to Jesus, and begged Him that they might touch even the fringe of His cloak; and all who touched it were healed.” Earlier, in Matthew 9:20-22, a woman had been healed of her 12-year haemorrhage simply by touching the fringe of Jesus’ cloak. And in Acts 19:11-12, St Luke testifies that “God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that when the handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were brought to the sick, their diseases left them, and the evil spirits came out of them.”
- How should we venerate relics?
Ideally, relics are to be kept in a church or chapel where they can be publicly venerated. The place of highest honour for a relic is within a church altar, or beneath it, where Mass may be celebrated over it. This tradition, which dates from earliest Church history, is rooted in St John’s vision in Revelation 6:9 of which he wrote “I saw under the altar, the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given…”.
Alternatively, relics may be housed in reliquaries, or ornate containers or boxes, where they may be openly displayed or hidden from view in niches before which the faithful can pray.
When venerating a relic, we should perform an exterior visible gesture that corresponds to our interior honour and respect for that saint. For example, we can kiss or touch the altar or reliquary, or make the sign of the cross before them while standing or kneeling in prayer, raising our hearts and minds to God and invoking the intercession of the saint for physical healing or spiritual graces.
For answers to any other questions we may have, St Jerome counsels us, “Read the Gospel. The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob; He is not the God of the dead, but of the living (Matthew 22:32).” If then, the saints are alive, then the people can surely go forth to “meet the sacred relics”, and welcome them “with as much joy as if they beheld a living prophet in the midst of them”.
Let us therefore give thanks to God for the saints whose relics are in our midst and remember and imitate the heroic virtue and fidelity to His grace (CCC 828).