Catholic Relics – An Introduction.
What is a relic? Why does the Catholic Church venerate and give honor to relics? How is it that the Church can believe that these human remains and articles of clothing could ever be a means of miraculous events? What is their importance to the Christian believer? These were questions that we had to answer due to our coming into the Catholic Church. As Protestants we had never come across this discussion, a relic was not something talked about, let alone thought about. That is unless we were talking about the Catholic Church and their evil adoration given to such things.
I remember not even a decade ago traveling through Rome. I had gone to St. Peter’s Basilica and there were several encasings of the bodies of previous Pope’s. I remember walking through the place mortified that they would put such things on display. I thought of how evil the Catholics must be to do such things and proclaimed as such to other Protestants whenever the subject of Rome would come up. “Sigh,” how much I wish I could turn back time.
Before we go into the history of the early Church in order to discover what was believed regarding such things in the past, we would like to explain just exactly what a relic is and where we find these explanations within Scripture. Within the Church there are three different classes of relics. These are First-Class Relics, Second-Class Relics, and Third-Class Relics.
Classes of Catholic Relics
First Class: These are items from the life of Jesus Christ (the cross, manger, etc.), or the physical remains of a saint (bone, hair, skull, a limb, etc.). A martyr’s relics, traditionally, are valued more than the relics of other saints. Those parts of the saint’s body that have special significance to that Saint’s life are also more valued. An example is the right forearm of King St. Stephen of Hungary (AD 1038) because of his status as founder and ruler of Hungary as a Christian state.
Second Class: An item worn by the saint (clothing, gloves, etc.), as well as items owned by or used often by a saint (a crucifix, Bible, rosary, other books, etc.). A second-class relic is sometimes a portion of an item worn, and called ex indumentis (“from the clothing”).
Third Class: An object touched to a first- or second-class relic. Most third-class relics are small pieces of cloth. In the first millennium, oil was a popular third-class relic.
Are Catholic Relics of Saints in Sacred Scripture?
Now that we have discussed what the description of a relic is, the next is to find confirmation of such things within Scripture. Relics tend to be an issue for many Protestants, and therefore to establish their acceptance within Scripture is vitally important to the non-Catholic. So we would like to view within Scripture the acceptance of all three classes of relics from the beginning of the Church.
First Class: We find this type of relic within the book of 2 Kings 13:20-21 –
“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 a raiding band. So they cast the man into the grave of Elisha, and everyone went off. But the man came in contact with the bones of Elisha, he came back to life and got to his feet.”
Here we have a very explicit story showing the miraculous events capable through the relics of God’s holy saints. One might think that this kind of event only would take place after the coming of Jesus. However, as we see, from the Old Testament times until today these relics of the saints have been a means of many miracles that have been fueled by the faith of God’s people.
Second Class: This type of relic is shown from the clothing of Jesus himself in Mark 5:27-30 –
- 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 dried up. She felt in her body that she was healed of her affliction. Jesus, aware at once that power had gone out of him, turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who has touched my clothes?”
Remembering that a second class relic consists of things used or associated physically with a saint, such as clothing, there is something very interesting to note in this passage. It was not Jesus personally, within interaction, that healed this woman. It was his clothing that facilitated the miracle through the faith of the woman. She had faith that his clothing was enough to bring her healing, and so it did. Jesus himself questioned the crowd about who had touched his clothes. He knew that power had been extended through the relic of his clothing. In the following verses the woman admits what she has done, and Jesus confirms for her that her healing has taken place because of her faith.
Third Class: This class of relic is described in Acts 19:11-12 –
“So extraordinary were the mighty deeds God accomplished at the hands of Paul that when face cloths or aprons that touched his skin were applied to the sick, their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.”
In this passage we see how a third class relic works. Even though it is merely an object touched to one of God’s holy people, they contain the ability, through faith, to heal and cast out demons. What an amazing thing for an item that otherwise would seem of little significance.
Now, one might argue that the cloths worked because Paul was still alive at this time. However, we can consider looking at 2 Kings 2:12-14 to see where this type of relic is used by someone no longer present.
“…He gripped his own garment, tore it into two pieces, and picked up the mantle which had fallen from Elijah. Then he went back and stood at the bank of the Jordan. Wielding the mantle which had fallen from Elijah, he struck the water and said, “The LORD, the God of Elijah—where is he now?” He struck the water: it divided, and he crossed over.”
Evidence of the Veneration of Catholic Relics in Early Church Writings
These passages serve to present an account of relics being acceptable to the people of God. In fact the very first account we find in the early Church outside of the Apostles themselves is by St Ignatius of Antioch. St. Ignatius being the direct disciple of John as well appointed the bishop of Antioch by St. Peter. Whose body was cast to the lions in an attempt to hinder the Christians from being able to preserve his body intact. It is for this reason that we find written within Chapter 6 of the Martyrdom of St Ignatius of Antioch:
“For only the harder portions of his holy remains were left, which were conveyed to Antioch and wrapped in linen, as an inestimable treasure left to the holy Church by the grace which was in the martyr” (AD 50-117)
The next such event that we have documented in history is from another disciple of the Apostle John. That is of St. Polycarp, of his death we find documented:
“Accordingly, we afterwards took up his bones, as being more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, whither, being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps” (AD 69-155)
It is also important to note that within the document regarding Polycarp’s martyrdom we also find this written:
“[After Bishop Polycarp was martyred in a Roman stadium] But when the adversary of the race of the righteous, the envious, malicious, and wicked one [Satan], perceived the impressive nature of his martyrdom, and [considered] the blameless life he had led from the beginning, and how he was now crowned with the wreath of immortality, having beyond dispute received his reward, he did his utmost that not the least memorial of him should be taken away by us [Christians], although many desired to do this, and to become possessors of his holy flesh. For this end he [Satan] suggested it to Nicetes, the father of Herod and brother of Alce, to go and entreat the governor not to give up his body to be buried, lest, said he, forsaking Him that was crucified, they begin to worship this one.
This he said…being ignorant of this, that it is neither possible for us ever to forsake Christ, who suffered for the salvation of such as shall be saved throughout the whole world (the blameless one for sinners ), nor to worship any other. For Him indeed, as being the Son of God, we adore; but the martyrs, as disciples and followers of the Lord, we worthily love on account of their extraordinary affection towards their own King and Master, of whom may we also be made companions and fellow disciples!”
So we see an established understanding from the very beginning regarding the importance placed upon the relics of the early saints, especially of those who had been martyred. The document regarding Polycarp declares that Christians not only held these relics in high honor, but understood the work of Satan, as doing whatever he could to ensure that the relics would not be accessible to the newly established Church.
Even more evidence of Catholic Relics in Church History
These events of relics being used within the Church continue throughout its history, they are not merely random events or some late medieval corruption of the Catholic Church. The Church fathers throughout history have had much to say on the subject. We would like to see a little of what has been written.
1. In the meanwhile a spirited body of senators of those who are engaged in the public transport service, seeing what had happened, for they were near the sea, prepared a boat, and suddenly seizing upon the sacred relics, they placed them in it, and scaling the Pharos from behind, by a quarter which has the name of Leucado, they came to the church of the most blessed mother of God, and Ever-Virgin Mary, which, as we began to say, he had constructed in the western quarter, in a suburb, for a cemetery of the martyrs (Peter of Alexandria – Genuine Acts of Peter AD 260-311)
2. But each of those who received the sheepskin of the blessed Anthony and the garment worn by him guards it as a precious treasure. For even to look on them is as it were to behold Anthony; and he who is clothed in them seems with joy to bear his admonitions. )Athanasius – Life of St Anthony AD 296-373)
3. If I am able to find any relics of martyrs, I pray that I may take part in your earnest endeavor….If you send the relics of the martyrs home you will do well; as you write that the persecution there is, even now, causing martyrs to the Lord….he took up the relics with all becoming reverence, and has aided the brethren in their preservation. These relics do you receive with a joy equivalent to the distress with which their custodians have parted with them and sent them to you….I acknowledge also the holy apostles, prophets, and martyrs; and I invoke them to supplication to God, that through them, that is, through their mediation, the merciful God may be propitious to me, and that a ransom may be made and given me for my sins. Wherefore also I honor and kiss the features of their images, inasmuch as they have been handed down from the holy apostles, and are not forbidden, but are in all our churches. (Letter from Basil of Caesarea A.D. 329-379)
4. Everywhere we venerate the tombs of the martyrs; we apply their holy ashes to our eyes; we even touch them, if we may, with our lips….We shall see the fountain in which the eunuch was immersed by Philip. We shall make a pilgrimage to Samaria, and side by side venerate the ashes of John the Baptist, of Elisha, and of Obadiah. (Jerome – Letter 46 AD 347-420)
- You tell me that Vigilantius (whose very name Wakeful is a contradiction: he ought rather to be described as Sleepy) has again opened his fetid lips and is pouring forth a torrent of filthy venom upon the relics of the holy martyrs; and that he calls us who cherish them ash-mongers and idolaters who pay homage to dead men’s bones. Unhappy wretch! to be wept over by all Christian men,… We, it is true, refuse to worship or adore, I say not the relics of the martyrs, but even the sun and moon, the angels and archangels, the Cherubim and Seraphim and “every name that is named, not only in this world but also in that which is to come.” For we may not “serve the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Still we honor the relics of the martyrs, that we may adore Him whose martyrs they are. We honor the servants that their honor may be reflected upon their Lord. (Jerome – Letter 109 AD 347-420)
5. For not the bodies only, but the very sepulchers of the saints have been filled with spiritual grace. For if in the case of Elisha this happened, and a corpse when it touched the sepulcher, burst the bands of death and returned to life again, much rather now, when grace is more abundant, when the energy of the spirit is greater, is it possible that one touching a sepulcher, with faith, should win great power; thence on this account God allowed us the remains of the saints, wishing to lead by them us to the same emulation, and to afford us a kind of haven, and a secure consolation for the evils which are ever overtaking us. (Homily by John Chrysostom on St Ignatius AD 347-407)
6. Veneration of the Cross- Then a chair is placed for the bishop in Golgotha behind the Cross, which is now standing; the bishop duly takes his seat in the chair, and a table covered with a linen cloth is placed before him; the deacons stand round the table, and a silver-gilt casket is brought in which is the holy wood of the Cross. The casket is opened and (the wood) is taken out, and both the wood of the Cross and the title are placed upon the table. ( Egeria Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem XXXVII AD 348-418)
7. how much stronger is their claim on you, who reside in the same country in this earth in which these ladies, for the love of Christ, renounced the distinctions of this world I also ask you to condescend to receive with the same love with which I have offered it my official salutation, and to remember me in your prayers. These ladies carry with them relics of the most blessed and glorious martyr Stephen: your Holiness knows how to give due honor to these, as we have done. (Letter of St. Augustine AD 354-430)
8. He (the monk Antony the great) was earnest in conduct, grave in discourse, and with a good memory and accurate attainment in Sacred Writ. He was so beloved by God, that even now many afflicted and possessed people are healed at his tomb….The Serenity of your Piety, conspicuous for religious zeal and love of holiness, has charged me with your commands to send to you the head of Saint Paul, or some other part of his body, for the church which is being built in honor of the same Saint Paul in the palace. And, being desirous of receiving commands from you, by exhibiting the most ready obedience to which I might the more provoke your favor towards me, I am all the more distressed that I neither can nor dare do what you enjoin. For the bodies of the apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul glitter with so great miracles and terrors in their churches that one cannot even go to pray there without great fear. In short, when my predecessor, of blessed memory, was desirous of changing the silver which was over the most sacred body of the blessed apostle Peter, though at a distance of almost fifteen feet from the same body, a sign of no small dreadfulness appeared to him. (Book 3 and 4 of Gregory the Great AD 540-604)
9. A tradition has come down to us that Angaros, King of Edessa, was drawn vehemently to divine love by hearing of our Lord,* and that he sent envoys to ask for His likeness. If this were refused, they were ordered to have a likeness painted. Then He, who is all-knowing and all-powerful, is said to have taken a strip of cloth, and pressing it to His face, to have left His likeness upon the cloth, which it retains to this day. John of Damascus Apologia Against those who decry Holy Images AD 679 749)
10. The brother having long labored under this malady, when no human means availed to save his eye, but rather, it grew daily worse, on a sudden, through the grace of the mercy of God, it came to pass that he was cured by the relics of the holy father, Cuthbert. For when the brethren found his body uncorrupted, after having been many years buried, they took some part of the hair, to give, as relics, to friends who asked for them, or to show, in testimony of the miracle. (Book 4 of the Venerable Bede Ecclesiastical History of England AD 672-735)
11. The Christian religion is frequently disparaged because certain people put saints’ relics up for sale and display them indiscriminately. In order that it may not be disparaged in the future, we ordain by this present decree that henceforth ancient relics shall not be displayed outside a reliquary or be put up for sale. As for newly discovered relics, let no one presume to venerate them publicly unless they have previously been approved by the authority of the Roman pontiff. (From the 4th Lateran Council / The 12th Ecumenical Council AD 1215-1216)
There is much more that is documented, but we hope that this small portion of excerpts helps for one to understand that the Church, from its beginning, has truly venerated the relics of God’s holy people. This is important because without accepting the Church’s position throughout history regarding relics, one might learn of such things and find in them a misconceived horror taking place. Some relics are peaceful and even serene in appearance, but others throughout history have been odd enough to raise the eyebrows of quite a few. Such as the head of St. Catherine of Siena, the blood of St. Januarius, the tongue of St Anthony of Padua, the finger of St. Thomas (doubting Thomas), or even the head of John the Baptist. While these may seem like something out of a medieval nightmare, they are indeed an acceptable practice since the beginning of Christianity. In fact as for relics of Christ, there are several also, such as the cross, the thorns, etc..
Catholic Relics of Saints Today
Since the days of old, where people had to travel far and at great expense to visit the different relics of the Saints, we have seen some great changes. Due to improvements in transportation there has become a greater ability for such pilgrimages. Better yet, in today’s time we now see relics traveling from place to place to allow the opportunity for more people to visit and honor those holy people who have already entered into the kingdom of heaven. In recent years we have several examples. Such as during 2013 in Vandalia, Illinois the relic of Mary Magdalene came to the U.S. for veneration. Traveling from the Cave of St. Mary Magdalene which is located just south of France, to Illinois for a month long stay.
Most recently the relics of St. Maria Goretti travelled throughout the U.S. These relics are of the youngest Saint to be Canonized, she died at the age of eleven a Martyr in the most beautiful of endings. In the upcoming Jubilee year of Mercy the relic of St. Padre Pio will be on display at St. Peters Basilica from February 8-14, 2016.
The Veneration of Catholic Relics is a Beautiful and Necessary Thing
We want to be clear that this type of veneration is not only acceptable but is expected. These are the relics of those men and women who have given their all to the Lord and have entered into his presence. Respect, awe, and honor should be given to the remains and belongings of these brothers and sisters of ours. It is through such honor that we see a continuation of miracles that are attributed to these most holy relics. For those of you who have never taken a pilgrimage we implore you to do so. We have just recently had the privilege to visit the relic of St. Maria Goretti. It was an experience that we hope is only the beginning for us. We have come to see how this veneration is a part of the Church from the very beginning, and therefore should be a part of the Church until the very end.