The veneration of relics is a fundamentally biblical practice; it is not some sort of innovation in the centuries after Christ. On the contrary, as Scripture reveals, the veneration of relics was widely practiced, in one form or another, by ancient Jews as well.
In the Old Testament, the Second Book of Kings details the death of Elisha the prophet. “Once some people were burying a man, when suddenly they saw such a raiding band. So they cast the man into the grave of Elisha, and everyone went off. But when the man came in contact with bones of Elisha, he came back to life and got to his feet” (2 Kgs 13:20-21).
This miracle is an early example of relics and the way that God can work wonders through them.
In the New Testament, one of the clearest examples is the story in the Gospels of Matthew (Mt 14:35-36), Mark (Mk 6:56) and Luke (Lk 8:43-44), in which people bring the sick to Jesus so that they might “touch only the tassel on his cloak,” and by coming into this direct contact with him, be healed.
The Acts of the Apostles tells of an early practice of venerating relics: “So extraordinary were the mighty deeds God accomplish 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” (Acts 19:11-12).
In the early church, the age of martyrs and persecution, relics took on an even more important role in the life of the church. St. Polycarp, a disciple of the apostle John, was martyred in 155/156. A contemporary account of Polycarp’s martyrdom stated:
“We took up his bones, which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place, where the Lord will permit us to gather ourselves together, as we are able, in gladness and joy and to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom.”
So, with all of this in mind, what does the church teach about the veneration of relics?
The Vatican’s “Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy” states that the term “relics of the saints” typically refers to “the bodies — or notable parts of the bodies — of the saints who, as distinguished members of Christ’s mystical body and as temples of the Holy Spirit in virtue of their heroic sanctity, now dwell in heaven, but who once lived on earth.”
Furthermore, it is not just their bodies, but “objects that belonged to the saints, such as personal objects, clothes and manuscripts are also considered relics, as are objects that have touched their bodies or tombs such as oils, cloths and images” (No. 236).
Catholics venerate relics — not because the individual saint is worthy of some sort of worship, or because there is anything inherently powerful in the relic itself — but because the relics are used by God as occasions of grace and wonder, and to show his power and love.
(Senz is a freelance writer living in Oregon with his family.)
• • •
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Many young Catholics, who rarely hear about relics in religion or church classes, as well as non-Catholics, may have questions about the practice of venerating relics, said Bishop Edward K. Braxton of Belleville, Illinois, in an All Saints’ Day reflection in 2015.
“They may think that veneration of physical remains is a form of superstition or magical thinking,” he said, and Catholics who venerate the saints should “make sure that nothing in our devotional practices reinforces this misunderstanding.”
“There are many Catholics for whom the veneration of relics is not a part of their spiritual lives,” and yet are still devoted to the saints, the bishop noted.
Catholics venerate relics, he said, “not because of a macabre preoccupation with the great mystery of death, but because of our timeless faith in the great mystery of the Incarnation.”
Adoration is rendered to God alone, Bishop Braxton said. Respectful veneration must not be confused with worship, as religious images and relics are merely “things,” he added.
Catholics do not venerate relics because they expect the relic “to do something to us or for us,” he said.
“If someone experiences profound spiritual renewal or (in very rare cases) a physical healing after venerating a relic, this must be seen as the power of God responding to acts of extraordinary faith,” Bishop Braxton explained.
“In faith, we hold out the hope that when we pray in the presence of a relic of a saint’s body (which was once a temple of the Holy Spirit) with an open mind, an open heart and an open spirit, we are disposed for the grace of God to help us to live the virtues exemplified by the faithful disciple of Christ whose body we venerate,” he said.