To venerate is to regard with reverential respect or with admiring deference; to honor (as an icon or a relic) with a ritual act of devotion.
As you can see above, veneration is not worship. Nor do we believe that relics contain magical powers. We do however, believe that God’s holy work is accomplished through good and holy people like our great saints. We believe that even death, as Jesus proved on the cross, cannot thwart His plans and His work continues through the saints even after their death.
Apart from countess miracles that have come to pass in association with these holy reminders over the centuries, relics also serve as our connection to our past. They are reminders that our saints are not simply names in a book or make believe people. They were real, living and breathing people just like us who struggled with many of the same difficulties and doubts that we live with every day. But through it all they remained true to God’s grace and God’s love and God’s work in their lives. The remind us of the reality of the Communion of the Saints.
Relics also remind us that one day too our bodies, just like Christ’s, will be resurrected. This should lead us to remember to revere the beauty and complexity of God’s great gift of the human body to and lead us to respect our bodies and the remains of the deceased.
If you are interested in further explanations, please read those provided by the sources listed below:
New Advent (1917 Catholic Encyclopedia)
The word relics comes from the Latin reliquiae (the counterpart of the Greek leipsana) which already before the propagation of Christianity was used in its modern sense, viz., of some object, notably part of the body or clothes, remaining as a memorial of a departed saint. The veneration of relics, in fact, is to some extent a primitive instinct, and it is associated with many other religious systems besides that of Christianity. At Athens the supposed remains of Oedipus and Theseus enjoyed an honour which it is very difficult to distinguish from a religious cult (see for all this Pfister, “Reliquienkult in Altertum”, I, 1909), while Plutarch gives an account of the translation of the bodies of Demetrius (Demetr. iii) and Phocion (Phoc. xxxvii) which in many details anticipates the Christian practice of the Middle Ages. The bones or ashes of Aesculapius at Epidaurus, of Perdiccas I at Macedon, and even—if we may trust the statement of the Chronicon Paschale (Dindorf, p. 67)—of the Persian Zoroaster (Zarathustra), were treated with the deepest veneration. As for the Far East, the famous story of the distribution of the relics of Buddha, an incident which is believed to have taken place immediately after his death, seems to have found remarkable confirmation in certain modern archaeological discoveries. (See “Journ. of R. Asiatic Society”, 1909, pp. 1056 sqq.). In any case the extreme development of relic-worship amongst the Buddhists of every sect is a fact beyond dispute.
Doctrine regarding relics
The teaching of the Catholic Church with regard to the veneration of relics is summed up in a decree of the Council of Trent (Sess. XXV), which enjoins on bishops and other pastors to instruct their flocks that “the holy bodies of holy martyrs and of others now living with Christ—which bodies were the living members of Christ and ‘the temple of the Holy Ghost’ (1 Corinthians 6:19) and which are by Him to be raised to eternal life and to be glorified are to be venerated by the faithful, for through these [bodies] many benefits are bestowed by God on men, so that they who affirm that veneration and honour are not due to the relics of the saints, or that these and other sacred monuments are uselessly honoured by the faithful, and that the places dedicated to the memories of the saints are in vain visited with the view of obtaining their aid, are wholly to be condemned, as the Church has already long since condemned, and also now condemns them.” Further, the council insists that “in the invocation of saints the veneration of relics and the sacred use of images, every superstition shall be removed and all filthy lucre abolished.” Again, “the visitation of relics must not be by any perverted into revellings and drunkenness.” To secure a proper check upon abuses of this kind, “no new miracles are to be acknowledged or new relics recognized unless the bishop of the diocese has taken cognizance and approved thereof.” Moreover, the bishop, in all these matters, is directed to obtain accurate information to take council with theologians and pious men, and in cases of doubt or exceptional difficulty to submit the matter to the sentence of the metropolitan and other bishops of the province, “yet so that nothing new, or that previously has not been usual in the Church, shall be resolved on, without having first consulted the Holy See.”
The justification of Catholic practice, which is indirectly suggested here by the reference to the bodies of the saints as formerly temples of the Holy Ghost and as destined hereafter to be eternally glorified, is further developed in the authoritative “Roman Catechism” drawn up at the instance of the same council. Recalling the marvels witnessed at the tombs of the martyrs, where “the blind and cripples are restored to health, the dead recalled to life, and *devils?* expelled from the bodies of men” the Catechism points out that these are facts which “St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, most unexceptionable witnesses, declare in their writings that they have not merely heard and read about, as many did but have seen with their own eyes”, (Ambrose, Epist. xxii, nn. 2 and 17, Augustine, Serm. cclxxxvi, c.v.; City of God XXII, “Confess.”, ix). And from thence, turning to Scriptural analogies, the compilers further argue: “If the clothes, the kerchiefs (Acts 19:12), if the shadow of the saints (Acts 5:15), before they departed from this life, banished diseases and restored strength, who will have the hardihood to deny that God wonderfully works the same by the sacred ashes, the bones, and other relics of the saints? This is the lesson we have to learn from that dead body which, having been accidentally let down into the sepulchre of Eliseus, “when it had touched the bones of the Prophet, instantly came to life” (2 Kings 13:21, and cf. Sirach 48:14). We may add that this miracle as well as the veneration shown to the bones of Joseph (see Exodus 13:19 and Joshua 24:32) only gain additional force from their apparent contradiction to the ceremonial laws against defilement, of which we read in Numbers 19:11-22. The influence of this Jewish shrinking from contact with the dead so far lingered on that it was found necessary in the “Apostolical Constitutions” (vi, 30) to issue a strong warning against it and to argue in favour of the Christian cult of relics.
According to the more common opinion of theologians, relics are to be honoured; St. Thomas, in Summa III:25:6, does not seem to consider even the word adorare inappropriate—cultu duliae relativae, that is to say with a veneration which is not that of latria (divine worship) and which though directed primarily to the material objects of the cult—i.e., the bones, ashes, garments, etc.—does not rest in them, but looks beyond to the saints they commemorate as to its formal term. Hauck, Kattenbusch, and other non-Catholic writers have striven to show that the utterances of the Council of Trent are in contradiction to what they admit to be the “very cautious” language of the medieval scholastics, and notably St. Thomas. The latter urges that those who have an affection to any person hold in honour all that was intimately connected with him. Hence, while we love and venerate the saints who were so dear to God, we also venerate all that belonged to them, and particularly their bodies, which were once the temples of the Holy Spirit, and which are someday to be conformed to the glorious body of Jesus Christ. “whence also”, adds St. Thomas, “God fittingly does honour to such relics by performing miracles in their presence [in earum praesentia].” It will be seen that this closely accords with the terms used by the Council of Trent and that the difference consists only in this, that the Council says per quae—”through which many benefits are bestowed on mankind”—while St. Thomas speaks of miracles worked “in their presence”. But it is quite unnecessary to attach to the words per quae the idea of physical causality. We have no reason to suppose that the council meant more than that the relics of the saints were the occasion of God’s working miracles. When we read in the Acts of the Apostles, xix, 11, 12, “And God wrought by the hand of Paul more than common miracles. So that even there were brought from his body to the sick, handkerchiefs and aprons, and the diseases departed from them, and the wicked spirits went out from them” there can be no inexactitude in saying that these also were the things by which (per quae) God wrought the cure.
There is nothing, therefore, in Catholic teaching to justify the statement that the Church encourages belief in a magical virtue, or physical curative efficacy residing in the relic itself . It may be admitted that St. Cyril of Jerusalem (A.D. 347), and a few other patristic and medieval writers, apparently speak of some power inherent in the relic. For example, St. Cyril, after referring to the miracle wrought by the body of Eliseus, declares that the restoration to life of the corpse with which it was in contact took place: “to show that even though the soul is not present a virtue resides in the body of the saints, because of the righteous soul which has for so many years tenanted it and used it as its minister”. And he adds, “Let us not be foolishly incredulous as though the thing had not happened, for if handkerchiefs and aprons which are from without, touching the body of the diseased, have raised up the sick, how much more should the body itself of the Prophet raise the dead?” (Cat., xviii, 16.) But this seems rather to belong to the personal view or manner of speech of St. Cyril. He regards the chrism after its consecration “as no longer simple ointment but the gift of Christ and by the presence of His Godhead it causes in us the Holy Ghost” (Cat., xxi, 3); and, what is more striking, he also declares that the meats consecrated to idols, “though in their own nature plain and simple become profane by the invocation of the evil spirit” (Cat., xix, 7)—all of which must leave us very doubtful as to his real belief in any physical virtue inherent in relics. Be this as it may, it is certain that the Church, with regard to the veneration of relics has defined nothing, more than what was stated above. Neither has the Church ever pronounced that any particular relic, not even that commonly venerated as the wood of the Cross, as authentic; but she approves of honour being paid to those relics which with reasonable probability are believed to be genuine and which are invested with due ecclesiastical sanctions.
Few points of faith can be more satisfactorily traced back to the earliest ages of Christianity than the veneration of relics. The classical instance is to be found in the letter written by the inhabitants of Smyrna, about 156, describing the death of St. Polycarp. After he had been burnt at the stake, we are told that his faithful disciples wished to carry off his remains, but the Jews urged the Roman officer to refuse his consent for fear that the Christians “would only abandon the Crucified One and begin to worship this man”. Eventually, however, as the Smyrnaeans say, “we took up his bones, which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place, where the Lord will permit us to gather ourselves together, as we are able, in gladness and joy, and to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom.” This is the keynote which is echoed in a multitude of similar passages found a little later in the patristic writers of both East and West. Harnack’s tone in referring to this development is that of an unwilling witness overwhelmed by evidence which it is useless to resist. “Most offensive”, he writes, “was the worship of relics. It flourished to its greatest extent as early as the fourth century and no Church doctor of repute restricted it. All of them rather, even the Cappadocians, countenanced it. The numerous miracles which were wrought by bones and relics seemed to confirm their worship. The Church therefore, would not give up the practice, although a violent attack was made upon it by a few cultured heathens and besides by the Manichæans” (Harnack, “Hist. of Dog.”, tr., IV, 313).
From the Catholic standpoint there was no extravagance or abuse in this cult as it was recommended and indeed taken for granted, by writers like St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Chrysostom, St. Gregory Nazianzen, and by all the other great doctors without exception. To give detailed references besides those already cited from the Roman Catechism would be superfluous. Suffice it to point out that the inferior and relative nature of the honour due to relics was always kept in view. Thus St. Jerome says (“Ad Riparium”, i, P.L., XXII, 907): “We do not worship, we do not adore [non colimus, non adoramus], for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the Creator, but we venerate [honoramus] the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore Him whose martyrs they are.” And St. Cyril of Alexandria writes (“Adv. Julian.”, vi, P.G. LXXVI, 812): “We by no means consider the holy martyrs to be gods, nor are we wont to bow down before them adoringly, but only relatively and reverentially [ou latreutikos alla schetikos kai timetikos].” Perhaps no single writing supplies a more striking illustration of the importance attached to the veneration of relics in the Christian practice of the fourth century than the panegyric of the martyr St. Theodore by St. Gregory of Nyssa (P.G., XLVI, 735-48). Contrasting the horror produced by an ordinary corpse with the veneration paid to the body of a saint the preacher expatiates upon the adornment lavished upon the building which had been erected over the martyr’s resting place, and he describes how the worshipper is led to approach the tomb “believing that to touch it is itself a sanctification and a blessing and if it be permitted to carry off any of the dust which has settled upon the martyr’s resting place, the dust is accounted as a great gift and the mould as a precious treasure. And as for touching the relics themselves, if that should ever be our happiness, only those who have experienced it and who have had their wish gratified can know how much this is desirable and how worthy a recompense it is of aspiring prayer” (col. 740).
This passage, like many others that might be quoted, dwells rather upon the sanctity of the martyr’s resting place and upon that of his mortal remains collected as a whole and honourably entombed. Neither is it quite easy to determine the period at which the practice of venerating minute fragments of bone or cloth, small parcels of dust, etc., first became common. We can only say that it was widespread early in the fourth century, and that dated inscriptions upon blocks of stone, which were probably altar slabs, afford evidence upon the point which is quite conclusive. One such, found of late years in Northern Africa and now preserved in the Christian Museum of the Louvre, bears a list of the relics probably once cemented into a shallow circular cavity excavated in its surface. Omitting one or two words not adequately explained, the inscription runs: “A holy memorial [memoria sancta] of the wood of the Cross, of the land of Promise where Christ was born, the Apostles Peter and Paul, the names of the martyrs Datian, Donatian, Cyprian, Nemesianus, Citinus, and Victoria. In the year of the Province 320 [i.e. A.D. 359] Benenatus and Pequaria set this up” (“Corp. Inscr. Lat.”, VIII, n. 20600).
We learn from St. Cyril of Jerusalem (before 350) that the wood of the Cross, discovered c. 318, was already distributed throughout the world; and St. Gregory of Nyssa in his sermons on the forty martyrs, after describing how their bodies were burned by command of the persecutors, explains that “their ashes and all that the fire had spared have been so distributed throughout the world that almost every province has had its share of the blessing. I also myself have a portion of this holy gift and I have laid the bodies of my parents beside the ashes of these warriors, that in the hour of the resurrection they may be awakened together with these highly privileged comrades” (P.G., XLVI, 764). We have here also a hint of the explanation of the widespread practice of seeking burial near the tombs of the martyrs. It seems to have been felt that when the souls of the blessed martyrs on the day of general were once more united to their bodies, they would be accompanied in their passage to heaven by those who lay around them and that these last might on their account find more ready acceptance with God.
We may note also that, while this and other passages suggest that no great repugnance was felt in the East to the division and dismemberment of the bodies of the saints, in the West, on the other hand, particularly at Rome, the greatest respect was shown to the holy dead. The mere unwrapping or touching of the body of a martyr was considered to be a terribly perilous enterprise, which could only be set about by the holiest of ecclesiastics, and that after prayer and fasting. This belief lasted until the late Middle Ages and is illustrated, for example, in the life of St. Hugh of Lincoln, who excited the surprise of his episcopal contemporaries by his audacity in examining and translating relics which his colleagues dared not disturb. In the Theodosian Code the translation, division, or dismemberment of the remains of martyrs was expressly forbidden (“Nemo martyrem distrahat”, Cod. Theod., IX, xvii, 7); and somewhat later Gregory the Great seems in very emphatic terms to attest the continuance of the same tradition. He professed himself sceptical regarding the alleged “customs of the Greeks” of readily transferring the bodies of martyrs from place to place, declaring that throughout the West any interference with these honoured remains was looked upon as a sacrilegious act and that numerous prodigies had struck terror into the hearts of even well-meaning men who had attempted anything of the sort. Hence, though it was the Empress Constantina herself who had asked him for the head or some portion of the body of St. Paul, he treated the request as an impossible one, explaining that, to obtain the supply of relics needful in the consecration of churches, it was customary to lower into the Confession of the Apostles as far as the second “cataract”—so we learn from a letter to Pope Hermisdas in 519 (Thiel, “Epist. gen.”, I, 873) ] a box containing portions of silk or cloth, known as brandea, and these brandea, after lying for a time in contact with the remains of the holy Apostles, were henceforth treated as relics. Gregory further offers to send Constantina some filings from St. Peter’s chains, a form of present of which we find frequent mention in his correspondence (St. Gregory, “Epist.”, Mon. Germ. Hist., I, 264 -66). It is certain that long before this time an extended conception of the nature of a relic, such as this important letter reveals, had gradually grown up. Already when Eusebius wrote (c. 325) such objects as the hair of St. James or the oil multiplied by Bishop Narcissus (Church History VII.39, and Church History VI.9) were clearly venerated as relics, and St. Augustine, in his City of God (XXII.8), gives numerous instances of miracles wrought by soil from the Holy Land flowers which had touched a reliquary or had been laid upon a particular altar, oil from the lamps of the church of a martyr, or by other things not less remotely connected with the saints themselves. Further, it is noteworthy that the Roman prejudice against translating and dividing seems only to have applied to the actual bodies of the martyrs reposing in their tombs. It is St. Gregory himself who enriches a little cross, destined to hang round the neck as an encolpion, with filings both from St. Peter’s chains and from the gridiron of St. Laurence (“Epist.”, Mon. Germ. Hist., I, 192). Before the year 350, St. Cyril of Jerusalem three times over informs us that the fragments of the wood of the Cross found by St. Helen had been distributed piecemeal and had filled the whole world (Cat., iv, 10; x, 19; xiii, 4). This implies that Western pilgrims felt no more impropriety in receiving than the Eastern bishops in giving.
During the Merovingian and Carlovingian period the cultus of relics increased rather than diminished. Gregory of Tours abounds in stories of the marvels wrought by them, as well as of the practices used in their honour, some of which have been thought to be analogous to those of the pagan “incubations” (De Glor. Conf., xx); neither does he omit to mention the frauds occasionally perpetrated by scoundrels through motives of greed. Very significant, as Hauck (Kirchengesch. Deutschl., I 185) has noticed is the prologue to the text of the Salic Laws, probably written, by a contemporary of Gregory of Tours in the sixth century. “That nation”, it says, “which has undoubtedly in battle shaken off the hard yoke of the Romans, now that it has been illuminated through Baptism, has adorned the bodies of the holy martyrs with gold and precious stones, those same bodies which the Romans burnt with fire, and pierced with the sword, or threw to wild beasts to be torn to pieces.” In England we find from the first a strong tradition in the same sense derived from St. Gregory himself. Bede records (Hist. Eccl., I, xxix) how the pope “forwarded to Augustine all the things needful for the worship and service of the church, namely, sacred vessels, altar linen, church ornaments, priestly and clerical vestments, relics of the holy Apostles and martyrs and also many books”. The Penitential ascribed to St. Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury, which certainly was known in England at an early date, declares that “the relics of the saints are to be venerated”, and it adds, seemingly in connexion with the same idea, that “If possible a candle is to burn there every night” (Haddan and Stubbs, “Councils”, III, 191). When we remember the candles which King Alfred constantly kept burning before his relics, the authenticity of this clause in Theodore’s Penitential seems the more probable. Again the relics of English saints, for example those of St. Cuthbert and St. Oswald, soon became famous, while in the case of the latter we hear of them all over the continent. Mr. Plummer (Bede, II, 159-61) has made a short list of them and shows that they must have been transported into the remotest part of Germany. After the Second Council of Nicaea, in 7 87, had insisted with special urgency that relics were to be used in the consecration of churches and that the omission was to be supplied if any church had been consecrated without them the English Council of Celchyth (probably Chelsea) commanded that relics were to be used, and in default of them the Blessed Eucharist. But the developments of the veneration of relics in the Middle Ages were far too vast to be pursued further. Not a few of the most famous of the early medieval inscriptions are connected with the same matter. It must suffice to mention the famous Clematius inscription at Cologne, recording the translation of the remains of the so called Eleven thousand Virgins (see Krause, “Inscrip d. Rheinlande”, no. 294, and, for a discussion of the legend, the admirable essay on the subject by Cardinal Wiseman.
Naturally it was impossible for popular enthusiasm to be roused to so high a pitch in a matter which easily lent itself to error, fraud and greed of gain, without at least the occasional occurrence of many grave abuses. As early as the end of the fourth century, St. Augustine denouncing certain impostors wandering about in the habit of monks, describes them as making profit by the sale of spurious relics (“De op. monach.”, xxviii and cf. Isidore, “De. div. off.”, ii, 16). In the Theodosian Code the sale of relics is forbidden (“Nemo martyrem mercetur”, VII, ix, 17), but numerous stories, of which it would be easy to collect a long series, beginning with the writings of St. Gregory the Great and St. Gregory of Tours, prove to us that many unprincipled persons found a means of enriching themselves by a sort of trade in these objects of devotion, the majority of which no doubt were fraudulent. At the beginning of the ninth century, as M. Jean Guiraud had shown (Mélanges G. B. de Rossi, 73-95), the exportation of the bodies of martyrs from Rome had assumed the dimensions of a regular commerce, and a certain deacon, Deusdona, acquired an unenviable notoriety in these transactions (see Mon. Germ. Hist.: Script., XV, passim). What was perhaps in the long run hardly less disastrous than fraud or avarice was the keen rivalry between religious centres, and the eager credulity fostered by the desire to be known as the possessors of some unusually startling relic. We learn from Cassian, in the fifth century, that there were monks who seized upon certain martyrs’ bodies by force of arms, defying the authority of the bishops, and this was a story which we find many times repeated in the Western chronicles of a later date.
In such an atmosphere of lawlessness doubtful relics came to abound. There was always a disposition to regard any human remains accidentally discovered near a church or in the catacombs as the body of a martyr. Hence, though men like St. Athanasius and St. Martin of Tours set a good example of caution in such cases, it is to be feared that in the majority of instances only a very narrow interval of time intervened between the suggestion that a particular object might be, or ought to be, an important relic, and the conviction that tradition attested it actually to be such. There is no reason in most cases for supposing the existence of deliberate fraud. The persuasion that a benevolent Providence was likely to send the most precious pignora sanctorum to deserving clients, the practice already noticed of attributing the same sanctity to objects which had touched the shrine as attached to the contents of the shrine itself, the custom of making facsimiles and imitations, a custom which persists to our own day in the replicas of the Vatican statue of St. Peter or of the Grotto of Lourdes, all these are causes adequate to account for the multitude of unquestionably spurious relics with which the treasuries of great medieval churches were crowded. In the case of the Nails with which Jesus Christ was crucified, we can point to definite instances in which that which was at first venerated as having touched the original came later to be honoured as the original itself. Join to this the large license given to the occasional unscrupulous rogue in an age not only utterly uncritical but often curiously morbid in its realism, and it becomes easy to understand the multiplicity and extravagance of the entries in the relic inventories of Rome and other countries.
On the other hand it must not be supposed that nothing was done by ecclesiastical authority to secure the faithful against deception. Such tests were applied as the historical and antiquarian science of that day was capable of devising. Very often however, this test took the form of an appeal to some miraculous sanction, as in the well-known story repeated by St. Ambrose, according to which, when doubt arose which of the three crosses discovered by St. Helena was that of Christ, the healing of a sick man by one of them dispelled all further hesitation. Similarly Egbert, Bishop of Trier, in 979, doubting as to the authenticity of what purported to be the body of St. Celsus, “lest any suspicion of the sanctity of the holy relics should arise, during Mass after the offertory had been sung, threw a joint of the finger of St. Celsus wrapped in a cloth into a thurible full of burning coals, which remained unhurt and untouched by the fire the whole time of the Canon” (Mabillon “Acta SS. Ord. Ben.”, III, 658).
The decrees of synods upon this subject are generally practical and sensible, as when, for example, Bishop Quivil of Exeter, in 1287 after recalling the prohibition of the General Council of Lyons against venerating recently found relics unless they were first of all approved by the Roman Pontiff, adds: “We command the above prohibition to be carefully observed by all and decree that no person shall expose relics for sale, and that neither stones, nor fountains, trees, wood, or garments shall in any way be venerated on account of dreams or on fictitious grounds.” So, again, the whole procedure before Clement VII (the antipope) in 1359, recently brought to light by Canon Chevalier, in connexion with the alleged Holy Shroud of Lirey, proves that some check at least was exercised upon the excesses of the unscrupulous or the mercenary.
Nevertheless it remains true that many of the more ancient relics duly exhibited for veneration in the great sanctuaries of Christendom or even at Rome itself must now be pronounced to be either certainty spurious or open to grave suspicion. To take one example of the latter class, the boards of the Crib (Praesaepe)— a name which for much more than a thousand years has been associated, as now, with the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore—can only be considered to be of doubtful. In his monograph “Le memorie Liberiane dell’ Infanzia di N. S. Gesù Cristo” (Rome, 1894), Mgr. Cozza Luzi frankly avows that all positive evidence for the authenticity of the relics of the Crib etc., is wanting before the eleventh century. Strangely enough, an inscription in Greek uncials of the eighth century is found on one of the boards, the inscription having nothing to do with the Crib but being apparently concerned with some commercial transaction. It is hard to explain its presence on the supposition that the relic is authentic. Similar difficulties might he urged against the supposed “column of the flagellation” venerated at Rome in the Church of Santa Prassede and against many other famous relics.
Still, it would be presumptuous in such cases to blame the action of ecclesiastical authority in permitting the continuance of a cult which extends back into remote antiquity. On the one hand no one is constrained to pay homage to the relic, and supposing it to be in fact spurious, no dishonour is done to God by the continuance of an error which has been handed down in perfect good faith for many centuries. On the other hand the practical difficulty of pronouncing a final verdict upon the authenticity of these and similar relics must be patent to all. Each investigation would be an affair of much time and expense, while new discoveries might at any moment reverse the conclusions arrived at. Further, devotions of ancient date deeply rooted in the heart of the peasantry cannot be swept away without some measure of scandal and popular disturbance. To create this sensation seems unwise unless the proof of spuriousness is so overwhelming as to amount to certainty. Hence there is justification for the practice of the Holy See in allowing the cult of certain doubtful ancient relics to continue. Meanwhile, much has been done by quietly allowing many items in some of the most famous collections of relics to drop out of sight or by gradually omitting much of the solemnity which formerly surrounded the exposition of these doubtful treasures. Many of the inventories of the great collections of Rome, or of Aachen, Cologne, Naples, Salzburg, Antwerp, Constantinople, of the Sainte Chapelle at Paris etc., have been published. For illustration’s sake reference may be made to the Count de Riant’s work “Exuviae Constantinopolitanae” or to the many documents printed by Mgr. Barbier de Monault regarding Rome, particularly in vol. VII of his “Oeuvres complètes”. In most of these ancient inventories, the extravagance and utter improbability of many of the entries cannot escape the most uncritical. Moreover though some sort of verification seems often to be traceable even in Merovingian times, still the so called authentications which have been printed of this early date (seventh century) are of a most primitive kind. They consist in fact of mere labels, strips of parchment with just the name of the relic to which each strip was attached, barbarously written in Latin. For example “Hic sunt reliquas sancti Victuriepiscopi, Festivitate Kalendis Septembris”, “Hic sunt patrocina sancti Petri et Paullo Roma civio”, etc.
It would probably be true to say that in no part of the world was the veneration of relics carried to greater lengths with no doubt proportionate danger of abuse, than among Celtic peoples. The honour paid to the handbells of such saints as St. Patrick, St. Senan, and St. Mura, the strange adventures of sacred remains carried about with them in their wanderings by the Armorican people under stress of invasion by Teutons and Northmen, the prominence given to the taking of oaths upon relics in the various Welsh codes founded upon the laws of Howell the Good, the expedients used for gaining possession of these treasures, and the numerous accounts of translations and miracles, all help to illustrate the importance of this aspect of the ecclesiastical life of the Celtic races.
At the same time the solemnity attached to translations was by no means a peculiarity of the Celts. The story of the translation of St. Cuthbert’s remains is almost as marvellous as any in Celtic hagiography. The forms observed of all-night vigils, and the carrying of the precious remains in “feretories” of gold or silver, overshadowed with silken canopies and surrounded with lights and incense, extended to every part of Christendom during the Middle Ages. Indeed this kind of solemn translation (elevatio corporis) was treated as the outward recognition of heroic sanctity, the equivalent of canonization, in the period before the Holy See reserved to itself the passing of a final judgment upon the merits of deceased servants of God, and on the other hand in the earlier forms of canonization Bulls it was customary to add a clause directing that the remains of those whose sanctity was thus proclaimed by the head of the Church should be “elevated”, or translated, to some shrine above ground where fitting honour could be paid them.
This was not always carried at once. Thus St. Hugh of Lincoln, who died in 1200, was canonized in 1220, but it was not until 1280 that his remains were translated to the beautiful “Angel Choir” which had been constructed expressly to receive them. This translation is noteworthy not only because King Edward I himself helped to carry the bier, but because it provides a typical example of the separation of the head and body of the saint which was a peculiar feature of so many English translations. The earliest example of this separation was probably that of St. Edwin, king and martyr; but we have also the cases of St. Oswald, St. Chad, St. Richard of Chichester (translated in 1276), and St. William of York (translated 1284). It is probable that the ceremonial observed in these solemn translations closely imitated that used in the enshrining of the relics in the sepulcrum of the altar at the consecration of a church while this in turn, as Mgr Duchesne has shown, is nothing but the development of the primitive burial service the martyr or saint being laid to rest in the church dedicated to his honour. But the carrying of relics is not peculiar to the procession which takes place at the dedications of a church. Their presence is recognized as a fitting adjunct to the solemnities of almost every kind of procession, except perhaps those of the Blessed Sacrament, and in medieval times no exception was made even for these latter.
Feast of relics
It has long been customary especially in churches which possessed large collections of relics, to keep one general feast in commemoration of all the saints whose memorials are there preserved. An Office and Mass for this purpose will be found in the Roman Missal and Breviary, and though they occur only in the supplement Pro aliquibus locis and are not obligatory upon the Church at large, still this celebration is now kept almost universally. The office is generally assigned to the fourth Sunday in October. In England before the Reformation, as we may learn from a rubric in the Sarum Breviary, the Festum Reliquiarum was celebrated on the Sunday after the feast of the Translation of St. Thomas of Canterbury (7 July), and it was to be kept as a greater double “wherever relics are preserved or where the bodies of dead persons are buried, for although Holy Church and her ministers observe no solemnities in their honour, the glory they enjoy with God is known to Him alone.”
About this page
APA citation. Thurston, H. (1911). Relics. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved November 15, 2018 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12734a.htm
MLA citation. Thurston, Herbert. “Relics.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 15 Nov. 2018 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12734a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Michael C. Tinkler.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is webmaster at newadvent.org. Regrettably, I can’t reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.
Is it weird that Catholics venerate relics? Here’s why we do
By Mary Rezac
Houston, Texas, Nov 1, 2017 / 03:02 am (CNA/EWTN News).- “We are many parts, but we are all one body,” says the refrain of a popular ’80s Church hymn, based on the words of 1 Cor. 12:12.
While we are one body in Christ, if you happen to be a Catholic saint, the many parts of your own body might be spread out all over the world.
Take, for example, St. Catherine of Siena.
A young and renowned third-order Dominican during the Middle Ages, she led an intense life of prayer and penance and is said to have single-handedly ended the Avignon exile of the successors of Peter in the 14th century.
When she died in Rome, her hometown of Siena, Italy, wanted her body. Realizing they would probably get caught if they took her whole corpse, the Siena thieves decided that it would be safer if they just took her head.
When they were stopped on their way out by guards outside of Rome, they said a quick prayer, asking for St. Catherine of Siena’s intercession. The guards opened the bag and did not find the dead head of St. Catherine, but a bag full of rose petals. Once the thieves were back in Siena, Catherine’s head re-materialized, one of the many miracles attributed to the saint.
The head of St. Catherine of Siena was placed in a reliquary in the Basilica of St. Dominic in Siena, where it can still be venerated today, along with her thumb. Her body remains in Rome, her foot is venerated in Venice.
From the Shroud of Turin, or the finger of St. Thomas, to the miraculous blood of St. Januarius, or the brain of St. John Bosco, the Catholic Church keeps and venerates many curious but nevertheless holy artifacts, known as relics, from Jesus and the saints.
To the outsider, the tradition of venerating relics (particularly of the corporeal persuasion) may seem like an outlandishly morbid practice.
But the roots of the tradition pre-date Jesus, and the practice is based in Scripture and centuries of Church teaching.
While it’s one of the most fascinating traditions of the Church, it can also be one of the most misunderstood.
Father Carlos Martins, CC, is a Custos Reliquiarum, which is an ecclesiastically appointed Curate of Relics with the authority to issue relics.
He is a member of Companions of the Cross, and the head of Treasures of the Church, a ministry that aims to give people an experience of the living God through an encounter with the relics of his saints in the form of an exposition. The ministry brings expositions of various relics throughout North America by invitation.
In the following interview with CNA, Fr. Martins answers questions and dispels some common misunderstandings about the tradition of relics.
First of all, what is a relic?
Relics are physical objects that have a direct association with the saints or with Our Lord. They are usually broken down into three classes:
First class relics are the body or fragments of the body of a saint, such as pieces of bone or flesh.
Second class relics are something that a saint personally owned, such as a shirt or book (or fragments of those items).
Third class relics are those items that a saint touched or that have been touched to a first, second, or another third class relic of a saint.
The word relic means “a fragment” or “remnant of a thing that once was but now is no longer.” Thus, we find in antique shops “Civil War relics” or “Relics of the French Revolution.” Obviously, we are not talking about these kinds of relics but rather sacred relics.
Where did the Catholic tradition of venerating saints’ relics come from?
Scripture teaches that God acts through relics, especially in terms of healing. In fact, when surveying what Scripture has to say about sacred relics, one is left with the idea that healing is what relics “do.”
When the corpse of a man was touched to the bones of the prophet Elisha the man came back to life and rose to his feet (2 Kings 13:20-21).
A woman was healed of her hemorrhage simply by touching the hem of Jesus’ cloak (Matthew 9:20-22).
The signs and wonders worked by the Apostles were so great that people would line the streets with the sick so that when Peter walked by at least his shadow might ‘touch’ them (Acts 5:12-15).
When handkerchiefs or aprons that had been touched to Paul were applied to the sick, the people were healed and evil spirits were driven out of them (Acts 19:11-12).
In each of these instances God has brought about a healing using a material object. The vehicle for the healing was the touching of that object. It is very important to note, however, that the cause of the healing is God; the relics are a means through which He acts. In other words, relics are not magic. They do not contain a power that is their own; a power separate from God.
Any good that comes about through a relic is God’s doing. But the fact that God chooses to use the relics of saints to work healing and miracles tells us that He wants to draw our attention to the saints as “models and intercessors” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 828).
When did the veneration of relics begin?
It was present from the earliest days of Christianity, during the Apostolic age itself. The following is an account written by the Church in Smyrna (modern day Izmir, Turkey) when its bishop, St. Polycarp was burned alive:
“We adore Christ, because He is the Son of God, but the martyrs we love as disciples and imitators of the Lord. So we buried in a becoming place Polycarp’s remains, which are more precious to us than the costliest diamonds, and which we esteem more highly than gold.”
(Acts of St. Polycarp, composed approx. 156 AD)
Polycarp was a significant figure. He was converted by John the Apostle, who had baptized him and subsequently ordained him a bishop. Thus we see that from its outset the Church practiced devotion to the remains of the martyrs.
What is the spiritual significance of relics?
I think that St. Jerome put it best when he said:
“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.” (Ad Riparium, i, P.L., XXII, 907).
We venerate relics only for the sake of worshiping God.
When we collect relics from the body of a saint, what part of the body do we use?
Any part of the saint’s body is sacred and can be placed in a reliquary. Any and every bone may be used. In addition, flesh, hair, and sometimes blood, are also used. Sometimes everything from the tomb is dispersed from it. Sometimes a tomb is preserved.
At what point in the canonization process are items or body parts considered official relics by the Church?
Before the beatification takes place, there is a formal rite whereby the relics are identified and moved (the official word is “translated”) into a church, a chapel, or an oratory. Put simply, the grave is exhumed and the mortal remains are retrieved.
Only the Church has the juridical power to formally recognize the sanctity of an individual. When the Church does this –through beatification and canonization – their relics receive the canonical recognition as being sacred relics.
There is an importance difference between beatification and canonization. Beatification is the declaration by the Church that there is strong evidence that the person in question is among the blessed in heaven. Nevertheless, beatification permits only local devotion. That is, devotion in the country in which the individual lived and died. When Mother Teresa was beatified, for instance, only in India and in her native Albania was her devotion permitted. Her Mass could not be celebrated, for example, in the United States, nor could her relics be placed within its altars.
Whereas beatification permits local devotion, canonization, on the other hand, mandates universal devotion. It grants to the canonized individual the rights of devotion throughout the universal Church.
The Church allows saints’ body parts to be scattered for relics, but forbids the scattering of ashes of the deceased who are cremated. Why is that?
Every person has a right to a burial. This means that the community has a duty to bury the dead.
Every human society and culture throughout time has felt this duty. The dead have always been buried, and archaeology has never discovered a human community that did not practice this. One could rightly say, therefore, that burying the dead forms part of our human cultural DNA.
The theological term for this instinct is natural law. Nature has imprinted a law within the human heart that manifests itself in the practice of burying the dead as a final act of love and devotion, or at least an act of respect and propriety.
It should be no surprise, then, that the Church lists as one of the corporal works of mercy burying the dead. Grace does not destroy nature but perfects it.
There is flexibility in the kind of burial. Remains may be buried in the ground, in the sea, or above ground within, for example, a cave or columbarium. The point is that a burial occurs within a single place, such that it can be said that the person “occupies” the place as a final location of rest. The human heart longs for this. We see people arriving at graves and speaking to the grave as if they were speaking to the deceased. And they do so differently than they might speak to the dead at home. At the grave, they speak to the dead as if they are in a place.
For this reason, among others, the Church has always taught not only that it is completely beneath the dignity of human body to have its remains “scattered,” but also completely beneath basic human sensibilities. People need a place to encounter and meet the dead in their physicality.
Nevertheless, the saints, as members of the body of Christ, have a right to have their remains venerated. And this right, flowing from their dignity as members of the Body of Christ, supersedes their right to have their remains remain in burial.
What is the proper way to keep relics? Are lay Catholics allowed to have first class relics in their homes?
Relics are very precious. They are not something that was alive at one time and is now dead. In the case of first class relics, we are talking about flesh that is awaiting the general resurrection, where the soul of a saint will be reunited with his physical remains.
As such, the way we treat relics is of the utmost importance. Ideally, relics should be kept in a Church or chapel where they can be made available for public veneration.
The highest honor the Church can give to a relic is to place it within an altar, where the Mass may be celebrated over it. This practice dates from the earliest centuries of the Church. In fact, the sepulchers of the martyrs were the most prized altars for the liturgy.
As an alternative to encasing them within altars, they may be installed within a devotional niche where people may venerate them. Such shrines are important as they afford people a deeper experience of intimacy with the saint.
The Church does not forbid the possession of relics by lay persons. They may even keep them in their homes. However, because of the many abuses that have been committed concerning relics, the Church will no longer issue relics to individuals – not even to clergy.
These abuses included failing to give them proper devotion (neglect), careless mistreatment of them, discarding them, and in some cases, even selling them. The abuses were not necessarily committed by the person to whom the Church had originally bequeathed the relics. But when such persons became deceased, and the relics were passed on by inheritance, they were often subject to great vulnerability. With the eclipse of the Christian culture in the western world, faith can no longer be taken for granted, even among the children of the most devout people.
Thus, to protect relics, the Church only issues them to Churches, chapels, and oratories.
How important is the authenticity of the relic? How does the Church go about determining authenticity of very old relics from the beginning of the Church?
The authenticity is critically important.
But for the ancient saints, determining identity is much easier than you might think. It was tradition to build a church over top of a saint’s grave. That is why St. Peter’s Basilica is where it is, or why St. Paul Outside the Walls is there. Both encompass the tomb for the saint, which is located directly beneath the altar.
Modern archaeology has only affirmed what the ancient tradition has believed.
This article was originally published on CNA Aug. 11, 2017.
August 1, 2016
We don’t want to take up a lot of your time, but let us explain about the relic thing….
Why do Catholics keep saint’s bones, hair, clothes or even their blood in gold shiny boxes? Didn’t God condemn idolatry? While many (both Protestants and Catholics alike) are often confused by the practice of venerating relics, the tradition has deep biblical roots.
What are relics?
Relics are material items that are connected to a saint and are sorted into three “classes.” A first-class relic is all or part of the physical remains of a saint. This could be a piece of bone, a vial of blood, a lock of hair, or even a skull or incorrupt body.
A second-class relic is any item that the saint frequently used (clothing, for example). A third-class relic is any item that touches a first or second-class relic.
Catholics are known to preserve relics of saints and it is believed that graces from God flow through these objects to devout souls who venerate them.
Where in the bible are relics?
The use of physical objects related to a holy person goes back as far as the Old Testament. In it we see an episode from the Second Book of Kings that features the use of relics.
“And so Elisha died and was buried. At that time of year, bands of Moabites used to raid the land. Once some people were burying a man, when suddenly they saw such a raiding band. So they cast the man into the grave of Elisha, and everyone went off. But when the man came in contact with the bones of Elisha, he came back to life and got to his feet.” (2 Kings 13:20-21)
Even in the New Testament we see how God uses material objects to bring about healings. In the Gospel of Mark we see how a woman is healed because she touched Jesus’ cloak.
“She had heard about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak. She said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I shall be cured.’ Immediately her flow of blood dried up. She felt in her body that she was healed of her affliction.” (Mark 5.27-29)
There are other examples in the lives of the apostles that clearly show how God works miracles through items connected to a saint.
Do relics have power?
While the Church encourages the practice of venerating relics, it is important to remember that it is not the actual object that imparts healing. A piece of bone can’t heal someone from terminal cancer. However, God can use a relic of a saint to heal, just like he used his cloak to heal the woman with the hemorrhage. The relic is an instrument for God’s miraculous power.
The recognition of the source of power prevents someone from worshiping the object and lifts his/her soul to God.
Has the Church supported this practice throughout the ages?
The Church has defended the veneration of relics since the very beginning. A letter written after the martyrdom of Saint Polycarp in 156 AD explains how the faithful venerated his bones and took special care of them.
“We took up the bones, which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place, where the Lord will permit us to gather ourselves together as we are able, in gladness and joy, and celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom.”
In his Letter to Riparius, St. Jerome (d. 420 AD) wrote in defense of relics, saying, “We do not worship, we do not adore, 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.”
The Church continues to reaffirm this worthy practice in the most recent Directory on Popular Piety.
“The Second Vatican Council recalls that ‘the Saints have been traditionally honored in the Church, and their authentic relics and images held in veneration’…The various forms of popular veneration of the relics of the Saints, such as kissing, decorations with lights and flowers, bearing them in processions, in no way exclude the possibility of taking the relics of the Saints to the sick and dying, to comfort them or use the intercession of the Saint to ask for healing. Such should be conducted with great dignity and be motivated by faith.”
In the end, relics of saints allow us to draw close to these holy men and women of the past and God uses these material objects to impart special graces to faithful souls. They are never to be worshiped, and are meant to lead us to the ultimate worship of the one God.
Although more than a common part of Catholic culture and practice, the veneration of relics has been practiced less during the last 50 years or so. But that seems to be changing in recent years, as a number of saintly relics have been traversing the United States, attracting large numbers of the faithful. Just last week it was announced by Capuchin Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley of Boston that the heart of the beloved Capuchin St. Pio of Pietrelcina (Padre Pio) will make its way through that archdiocese. And today, an exhibit featuring for the first time relics and artifacts of St. Thomas More will open to the public at the St. John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, D.C. Relics seem to be making a comeback, and in a big way.
And yet the veneration of relics in the Catholic tradition can be misunderstood easily. At first glance it can appear to be displaced praise. Critics would falsely claim that praise or worship is accorded to the relic or saint rather than God himself, who, of course, is rightly the only subject of all worship.
A proper understanding of relic veneration, however, is best achieved with an appropriate approach. It would simply be incoherent to think that a Catholic or Christian would offer praise and worship to anyone other than God. And yet, honoring the saints — and their relics — is also an important part of what we do.
In order to develop a proper understanding of the place of relics in the Christian tradition, it might be helpful to consider them within a different context — that of family. It’s not uncommon for many people to honor the memory of their loved ones by keeping pictures of family around the house. Nor is it uncommon to keep cherished belongings of our deceased loved ones, like grandma’s jewelry or grandpa’s Bible. These belongings likely are treasured, and treated with honor and reverence. They’re kept in safe and honorable places. They’re well-packaged when we move. They’re often handed on from one generation to the next. These secular “relics” assist us in recalling the person and his or her life, and the memories that remind us of who they were and what they were about.
It is not rare to honor remnants of relatives’ bodies, or those of notable people. Often parents will keep first teeth that are lost, or save clippings of their child’s first haircut. We build monuments to great men and women, and set up grave markers to memorialize them. And so it seems almost second nature for us to honor members of our family and those dear to us as well as the objects that belonged to them.
And so why wouldn’t a similar reverence translate into our family of the Church? Catholics see the members of the Church as members of a family. The saints are those men and women from our family who are deserving of our honor for their life of spiritual greatness. Of course, as human beings — composites of body and soul — the Church honors their bodies after death. We, of course, do this as well in our families when we visit and decorate graves on birthdays, death dates or holidays. Made in God’s image and likeness, we recognize the dignity of the human person by honoring their earthly remains — that is why the Church demands of proper disposal of a person’s remains (burial of body or cremains).
Within this context, then, we should understand that relics are meant to be honored and venerated, not worshipped. In fact, the saints lead us to fuller worship of God in spirit and truth. By honoring their memories, bodies and belongings, we give thanks to God for the saint’s holy witness. Relics are physical, tangible, concrete reminders that heaven is obtainable for us — so long as we recognize what made the saints holy and work to apply those qualities to our lives. When venerating relics we express gratitude to God for those members of our spiritual family. In the presence of the relics we recall their holy lives and we pray for the grace to achieve what they’ve achieved — eternity with God in Heaven.
Michael R. Heinlein is editor of The Catholic Answer magazine. Follow him on Twitter @HeinleinMichael.
WHY DO WE VENERATE RELICS?
Father William Saunders
In the article about the beatification of Father Damien, I read that his “relics” were given to the bishop of Honolulu. Could you please explain this and give some history behind it?—A reader in Leesburg
Relics include the physical remains of a saint (or of a person who is considered holy but not yet officially canonized) as well as other objects which have been “sanctified” by being touched to his body.
These relics are divided into two classes. First class or real relics include the physical body parts, clothing and instruments connected with a martyr’s imprisonment, torture and execution. Second class or representative relics are those which the faithful have touched to the physical body parts or grave of the saint.
The use of relics has some, although limited, basis in sacred Scripture. In 2 Kings 2:9-14, the prophet Elisha picked up the mantle of Elijah after Elijah had been taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. With is, Elisha struck the water of the Jordan, which then parted so that he could cross. In another passage (13:20-21), some people hurriedly bury a dead man in the grave of Elisha, “but when the man came in contact with the bones of Elisha, he came back to life and rose to his feet.” In the Acts of the Apostles we read, “Meanwhile, God worked extraordinary miracles at the hands of Paul. When handkerchiefs or cloths which had touched his skin were applied to the sick, their diseases were cured and evil spirits departed from them” (19:11-12). In these three passages, a reverence was given to the actual body or clothing of these very holy people who were indeed God’s chosen instruments—Elijah, Elisha and St. Paul. Indeed, miracles were connected with these “relics”—not that some magical power existed in them, but just as God’s work was done through the lives of these holy men, so did His work continue after their deaths. Likewise, just as people were drawn closer to God through the lives of these holy men, so did they (even if through their remains) inspire others to draw closer even after their deaths. This perspective provides the Church’s understanding of relics.
The veneration of relics of the saints is found in the early history of the Church. A letter written by the faithful of the Church in Smyrna in the year 156 provides an account of the death of St. Polycarp, their bishop, who was burned at the stake. The letter reads, “We took up the bones, which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place, where the Lord will permit us to gather ourselves together as we are able, in gladness and joy, and celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom.” Essentially, the relics—the bones and other remains of St. Polycarp—were buried and the tomb itself was the “reliquary.” Other accounts attest that the faithful visited the burial places of the saints and miracles occurred. Moreover, at this time we see the development of “feast days” marking the death of the saint, the celebration of Mass at the burial place and a veneration of the remains.
After the legalization of the Church in 312, the tombs of saints were opened and the actual relics were venerated by the faithful. A bone or other bodily part was placed in a reliquary—a box, locket and later a glass case—for veneration. This practice especially grew in the Eastern Church, while the practice of touching cloth to the remains of the saint was more common in the west. By the time of the Merovingian and Carolingian periods of the Middle Ages, the use of reliquaries was common throughout the whole Church.
The Church strived to keep the use of relics in perspective. In his Letter to Riparius, St. Jerome (d. 420) wrote in defense of relics: “We do not worship, we do not adore, 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.”
Here we need to pause for a moment. Perhaps in our technological age, the whole idea of relics may seem strange. Remember, all of us treasure things that have belonged to someone we love—a piece of clothing, another personal item, a lock of hair. Those “relics” remind us of the love we share with that person while he was still living and even after death. Our hearts are torn when we think about disposing of the very personal things of a deceased loved one. Even from an historical sense, at Ford’s Theater Museum for instance, we can see things that belonged to President Lincoln, including the blood-stained pillow on which he died. More importantly, we treasure the relics of saints, the holy instruments of God.
During the Middle Ages, the “translation of relics,” meaning the removal of relics from the tombs, their placement in reliquaries and their dispersal, grew. Sadly, abuses grew also. With various barbarian invasions, the conquests of the Crusades, the lack of means for verifying all relics and less than reputable individuals who in their greed preyed on the ignorant and the superstitious, abuses did occur. Even St. Augustine (d. 430) denounced impostors who dressed as monks selling spurious relics of saints. Pope St. Gregory (d. 604) forbade the selling of relics and the disruption of tombs in the catacombs. Unfortunately, the popes or other religious authorities were powerless in trying to control the translation of relics or prevent forgeries. Eventually, these abuses prompted the Protestant leaders to attack the idea of relics totally. Unfortunately, the abuses and the negative reaction surrounding relics has led many people to this day to be skeptical about relics.
In response, the Council of Trent (1563) defended invoking the prayers of the saints and venerating their relics and burial places. “The sacred bodies of the holy martyrs and of the other saints living with Christ, which have been living members of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit and which are destined to be raised and glorified by Him unto life eternal, should also be venerated by the faithful. Through them, many benefits are granted to men by God.” Since that time, the Church has taken stringent measures to ensure the proper preservation and veneration of relics. The <Code of Canon Law> (No. 1190) absolutely forbids the selling of sacred relics and they cannot be “validly alienated or perpetually transferred” without permission of the Holy See. Moreover, any relic today would have proper documentation attesting to its authenticity.
The Code also supports the proper place for relics in our Catholic practice. Canon 1237 states, “The ancient tradition of keeping the relics of martyrs and other saints under a fixed altar is to be preserved according to the norms given in the liturgical books” (a practice widespread since the fourth century). Many churches also have relics of their patron saints which the faithful venerate upon appropriate occasions. And yes, reports of the Lord’s miracles and favors continue to be connected with the intercession of a saint and the veneration of his relics.
In all, relics remind us of the holiness of a saint and his cooperation in God’s work. At the same time, relics inspire us to ask for the prayers of that saint and to beg the grace of God to live the same kind of faith-filled live.
Fr. Saunders is president of Notre Dame Institute and pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria.
This article appeared in the July 13, 1995 issue of “The Arlington Catholic Herald.” Courtesy of the “Arlington Catholic Herald” diocesan newspaper of the Arlington (VA) diocese. For subscription information, call 1-800-377-0511 or write 200 North Glebe Road, Suite 607 Arlington, VA 22203.