Judaism and Catholicism are very earthy religions. After all, the universe is God’s handiwork. He comes to us through his creation, and we give him worship with our bodies; we kneel and bow before him.
But we also use many of these same gestures to show not “adoration” but “veneration” for people, places and things associated with him. Israelites bowed before the king, God’s anointed (1 Kings 1:31). But the king also bowed before his mother (1 Kings 2:19). All Israelites bowed before the Ark of the Covenant, God’s footstool (Psalms 99:5).
This biblical background is necessary to understand why Catholics venerate relics. The word “relic” comes from the word for remains or something left behind from a holy person or event. The bones of a martyr, the clothing of a saint, a bloodstained corporal from a eucharistic miracle — these are all relics.
The origin of venerating such mementos is not medieval, but biblical. The tablets of the Ten Commandments, Elijah’s mantle, even the bones of Elisha (2 Kings 13:21), all these were relics imbued with God’s power and revered by God’s people.
In the New Testament, God’s healing power was transmitted through the hem of the Lord’s garment (Luke 8:44) and handkerchiefs touched to St. Paul (Acts 19:12).
The earliest written account of a Christian martyrdom after St. Stephen is very instructive here. Polycarp, an early bishop who was a disciple of St. John, was put to death around A.D. 155 and his body was burned by the authorities.
The acts of his martyrdom note that Christians gathered his bones, “more precious than costly stones and more valuable than gold,” and laid them away in a suitable place where they could honor them and celebrate Mass over them each year on the anniversary of his death.
Yes, Christians were sometimes to be found deep under Rome, in the catacombs, but they were not there to hide: They were there to honor the relics of the martyrs who were buried there.
It is no wonder, then, that the bodily remains as well as clothing touched to the bodies of saints throughout history have continued to be venerated, holding a prominent place in the devotion of the people of God.
But three things must be kept in mind. First, there is essential difference between the worship (“latria”) due to God alone and the veneration (“dulia”) shown to all that is associated with God and his work.
Second, all veneration of tangible relics are signs of love, honor and devotion to the persons with whom those relics are associated and, ultimately, to Christ.
Finally, a relic is not a magic charm that can be counted on to force the Lord to give us what we want. When we are without true faith and oppose God’s will, even marching behind the Ark of the Covenant will not assure victory in battle; just ask the Israelites (1 Samuel 4).
By Marcellino D’Ambrosio, co-founder of Crossroads Productions, an apostolate of Catholic renewal and evangelization.