Relics of the Saints
We Catholics honour and respect religious relics. The word ‘relic’ comes from the Latin ‘reliquiae’ meaning ‘remains’. A first class relic is the body or part of the body of a holy person or saint. Or if it is something that belonged to them, such as a book, a crucifix, a piece of clothing or a pair of glasses, we call these second class relics. Then a third class relic is a piece of cloth or something that has merely touched the body of a saint. To have a piece or a part of a holy person or place has been part of the Church’s practice from the very beginning. The Church’s veneration of relics is founded on the fact that Christianity is an incarnational religion, where the Son of God took on human flesh. He saved us through His Precious Blood which was material and part of His humanity. The Seven Sacraments themselves are where physical things such as bread, wine, water and oil become a means of grace. So we respect and reverence material things.
It is legitimate and profitable to venerate the relics of the saints. We read in the Acts of the Apostles of how aprons and handkerchiefs that had merely touched the body of St Paul were used to cure people of diseases and sickness:
“And God did extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul; so that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried away from his body to the sick, and diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them” (Acts 19:12).
Then the instruments of torture or martyrdom are also relics, for example the Crown of Thorns and the chains of St Peter, both of which you will find in Rome. Many churches have a relic of the True Cross on which Christ was crucified. There were occasions in history where certain people used fake relics as a source of raising money. To guard against this historical abuse, the Church instituted certification of the relics to guarantee their authenticity.
It’s a natural human instinct to want something of those we love or admire. A son or daughter will treasure a lock of hair, a ring or a watch of his late mother or father. Many people like to have things that belonged to their favourite footballer or singer or to have the autograph of someone famous. Similarly the Church allows us to have belongings of the saints so that through them we can be in closer contact with Our Lord and the court of Heaven, so that we may desire to imitate them and long to be with them one day. The bodies of the saints in this life were Temples of the Holy Spirit, and it was in their bodies that they worked out their salvation. Their bodies shared in their holiness and in many cases in their martyrdom, and one day will share in their glory at the end of time. For hundreds of years people have made pilgrimages to the tombs of the saints because they desired to venerate their relics and also to ask for blessings, healings and even miracles.
It’s important to understand we do not worship the relics of the saints. We worship God alone. We give a relative veneration or honour to the relics of the saints. Neither do we pray to the relics, because they can neither see nor hear us. But we can pray before a relic, asking the saint whose relic it is to intercede for us or to obtain some favour for us from God, or ask their help to practice a virtue that he or she practised.
We have relics of the saints in our church. Every altar in St Mary’s contains the relics of three saints, at least one of which must be a martyr, and we celebrate Mass upon their very bones. So as it was in the early Church, so it remains today. To venerate relics is something distinctly and characteristically Christian.
Fr Paul Gillham, IC