Have you ever heard of relics? Perhaps you’ve had a relic, or relics come through your parish as a stop on a longer tour. Maybe you’ve seen some on a pilgrimage somewhere. Or, maybe you’ve just heard the term.
You may be wondering, “What are relics and why does the Catholic Church venerate them?” Relics are sacramentals that connect us to the holy men and women who have come before us throughout Church history as we honor and imitate their heroic virtue. A first degree relic is a physical fragment of the saint’s body. A second degree relic is a fragment of something the saint owned, such as an article of clothing or a book. Finally, a third degree relic is a piece of something the saint touched, like the kneeler they knelt on while attending Holy Mass.
The Church collects and authenticates relics before gifting and distributing them. They are typically accompanied by a certificate of authentication, which our relic has. They are carefully sealed in a container called a reliquary and marked with a seal so as not to lose or damage the delicate item.
The veneration of relics is commonly misunderstood, either perceived as an inappropriate worship of matter, or as being a bit morbid. Neither is true. We know that God created the physical world and works through matter to bring about grace for us. For example, He works through physical water to bring about sanctifying grace in the Sacrament of Baptism and He works through bread, water, and wine to give us the grace we receive in the Eucharist. Similarly, if we are open and responsive in our faith, He can give us grace through our veneration of relics, while also reminding us that this person was an example of how to follow Christ. St Jerome tells us, “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). As for the morbidity factor, from the beginning, Christians have not considered the use of relics to be morbid, but rather as a way of remaining connected to all of the members of the Mystical Body of Christ through time and space. For example, during the persecutions, Christians would go into the underground catacombs and celebrate the Holy Mass, using the tombs of martyrs as altars. To this day, it is customary to install relics in our Catholic Churches’ altars to continue that tradition.
In addition to simply being part of our tradition, we have great scriptural evidence that relics have been used to bring about miracles and grace, of which these are a few examples:
- The corpse of a man was touched to the bones of the prophet Elisha after being tossed into Elisha’s grave. The man came back to life and rose to his feet (2 Kings 13:20-21).
- A woman reached out and touched the hem of Jesus’ cloak and was cured of her 12-year hemorrhage (Matthew 9:20-22).
- People brought the sick to the Apostles and laid them on cots and mats so that Peter’s shadow could “touch” them and they would be healed (Acts 5:12-15).
- The handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched Paul’s skin were brought to heal the sick. (Acts 19:11-12).
If you get the opportunity to encounter or visit a relic, it is common practice to touch something of yours, like a rosary or prayer card, to the reliquary that holds the relic. It is a way to stay physically connected to saintly members of the body of Christ.
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