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Q&A: Why do Catholics venerate saints’ relics?

(Click for the full text of this article by Catholic News Agency)

Q. What is a relic?

Relics are physical objects that have a direct association with the saints or 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 a saint personally owned, such as a shirt or book, or fragments of those items; third-class relics are items 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.”

Q. 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).
- 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 brought about a healing using a material object. The vehicle for the healing was the touching of that object. The cause of the healing is God; the relics are a means through which He acts. In other words, relics are not magic.  

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).

Q. When did veneration of relics begin?

It was present from the earliest days of Christianity, during the Apostolic age itself. For example, 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, 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.

Q. What is the spiritual significance of relics?

“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.”  (St. Jerome, Ad Riparium, i, P.L., XXII, 907).

We venerate relics only for the sake of worshiping God. 

Q. When we collect relics from the body of a saint, what part 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.

Q. 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 or “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 important 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, in the country in which the individual lived and died.

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 Church.

Q. 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. 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.

Thus, to protect relics, the Church only issues them to Churches, chapels, and oratories.

Q. How does the Church determine authenticity of very old relics from the beginning of the Church?

The authenticity is critically important.

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.

Via CNA by Father Carlos Martins, CC, a Custos Reliquiarum, an ecclesiastically appointed Curate of Relics with the authority to issue relics, and head of Treasures of the Church.

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