VENERATION OF RELICS
The Practice of Venerating Relics
Catholics all over the world are known for their practice of venerating the relics of the saints. Relics are the surviving body parts or personal belongings of a saint preserved to venerate the saint and to keep their memory in the minds of the faithful. Other religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.) also have relics of their heroes, martyrs and important personages, but the practice of preserving and venerating relics is most visible in the Catholic Church which has accumulated many relics starting from the time of the Roman Persecution. The early Christians would usually preserve the physical remains of their beloved martyrs, and even built altars on top of them, a practice that was probably inspired by Apoc 6:9. Sometimes whole churches were built on top of grave sites. For example, St. Peter's Basilica in Rome was built over several graves, which includes the tomb of St. Peter. In the Holy Land the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built over the tomb of our Lord.
Relics are generally divided into three classes:
First-class relics are items associated with Christ (such as a piece of wood from His cross, a nail used during the crucifixion, the holy shroud which wrapped His dead body when He was buried, etc.) or the actual body parts of a saint, such as pieces of hair, a skull, a bone, etc. Note that although the holy shroud is considered a relic by many, the Vatican is cautious to simply call it an "icon" rather a relic, due to the still on-going debate about its authenticity.
Second-class relics include items owned or frequently used by the saint (such as his book, rosary, clothing, etc).
Third-class relics include anything touched to a first- or second-class relic (such as a small piece of cloth touched to the relic, or oil collected from a burning lamp at a reliquary). Thousands of third-class relics have been distributed around the world, and it is not unusual to see Catholics having one or more of these relics among their religious items at home.
EXAMPLES OF FIRST CLASS RELICS
Face of Christ
From the Shroud of Turin
Image source link: commons.wikimedia.org
Head of St. Catherine of Siena
Photographed by Giovanni Cerretani, 2011
CC BY-SA 3.0, commons.wikimedia.org
Relics from the body of a saint are usually collected when the body is exhumed and translated to a church just before the process of beatification. It was the practice in the past to cut up the body of a saint so that the relics could be distributed to various churches for veneration. This is why the head of St. Catherine of Siena is now in the Basilica of St. Dominic in Siena, along with her thumb, while one foot is in Venice and the headless body is in Rome. In addition to bones, various parts of the bodies of saints have been used as relics. The dried but miraculous blood of St. Januarius, the brain of St. John Bosco, the tongue of St. Anthony of Padua, the finger of St. Thomas, and the incorrupt arm of St. Francis Xavier are well-known examples.
To prevent abuse and excessive mutilation of a saint's body, the rules for obtaining relic for veneration in the church have been tightened. Still, thousands of first- and second-class relics from various saints have been distributed around the world so that Catholic Churches today usually have one or more relics hidden in a niche beneath their altars. In some occasions the relic in the church's custody is exposed for public veneration. Besides reports of God performing miracles from the veneration of relics, there have also been reports of God granting special favors to those who have given honor to His saints.
The wide practice and popularity of venerating relics among Catholics have been criticized by some non-Catholics. They say that this practice is sinful because it amounts to idolatry, or at least, to superstition. In addition, they claim that this practice was never prescribed by the Bible.
It may be true that some ignorant Catholics have become superstitious about the relics of the saints, imagining that anything touched to the relics of the saints would have magical powers. However, that was not the teaching of the Catholic Church. The Church insists that relics may only be venerated, not worshipped. It is no different than the reverence we give to the statues, icons and images of the saints. We honor them, but do not worship them. Divine worship (latria) is reserved to God alone. Any healing power from the relics strictly comes from God, not from the relics themselves. Bishops have been enjoined to instruct the faithful regarding this matter to prevent idolatry or superstition. See The Decrees of the Council of Trent (Session 25) and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part Two, Sect. Two, Chapt. 4, Art. 1, #1674.
Not Prescribed, but Not Unbiblical
The veneration of relics was not explicitly prescribed by Holy Scripture, but there is evidence from Holy Scripture that the veneration of relics was nothing new. For example, we know that Moses and the Israelites took Joseph's bones with them when they left Egypt (Ex 13:19 and Jos 24:32). What was this if not Moses venerating the relics of the Patriarch Joseph?
There are also examples of God performing miracles through the relics of holy people. For example, Elisha was able to divide the waters of the River Jordan, and crossed the river, simply by striking the water with a mantle that fell off from the prophet Elijah when he was taken up by a fiery chariot (4 Kgs 2:14). Of course, the prophet Elijah did not die when he was taken up to an extra-terrestrial paradise; but for Elisha the mantle that Elijah left behind was a second-class relic of Elijah, whom he did not see anymore since he was taken up.
A little farther on in the Second Book of Kings, it is also written that a dead man who was being buried came to life when touched to the bones of Elisha (2 Kgs 13:21). Amazing resurrection miracle from a first-class relic!
The popularity of venerating third-class relics, or cloths touched to the relics of saints, has its roots in the Bible also. In the New Testament, even before St. Paul died, St. Luke wrote that many sick people had been healed by means of handkerchiefs or aprons touched to the skin of St. Paul (Acts 19:11-12). A little earlier in the same book St. Luke wrote that God healed all the sick people, including those who were touched just by the shadow of St. Peter (Acts 5:14-16)! This indicates how generous God is in granting favors to those who honor His saints.
Saints Peter and Paul
Oil Painting by El Greco (1541-1614)
Photographed by Bjoertvedt
CC BY-SA3.0 License, commons.wikimedia.org
The Witness of Sacred Tradition
Although the veneration of relics was not prescribed by the Bible, the monuments of Sacred Tradition show that the veneration of relics was practiced by the early Christians and endorsed by the Church Fathers. In the quotations below St. Augustine even gave examples of miracles that God performed for those who venerated the relics of saints.
The Church of Smyrna (A.D. 156), The Martyrdom of Polycarp, Ch. 18: "The centurion then, seeing the strife excited by the Jews, placed the body in the midst of the fire, and consumed it. 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." (Note: Smyrna is modern-day Izmir, Turkey. The text is from a letter of the Church of Smyrna to all churches.)
St. Jerome of Stridonium (A.D. 347-420), Against Vigilantius, #5: "Was the Emperor Constantius I. guilty of sacrilege when he transferred the sacred relics of Andrew, Luke, and Timothy to Constantinople? In their presence the demons cry out, and the devils who dwell in Vigilantius confess that they feel the influence of the saints. And at the present day is the Emperor Arcadius guilty of sacrilege, who after so long a time has conveyed the bones of the blessed Samuel from Judea to Thrace? Are all the bishops to be considered not only sacrilegious, but silly into the bargain, because they carried that most worthless thing, dust and ashes, wrapped in silk in golden vessel? Are the people of all the Churches fools, because they went to meet the sacred relics, and welcomed them with as much joy as if they beheld a living prophet in the midst of them, so that there was one great swarm of people from Palestine to Chalcedon with one voice re-echoing the praises of Christ? They were forsooth, adoring Samuel and not Christ, whose Levite and prophet Samuel was. You show mistrust because you think only of the dead body, and therefore blaspheme. Read the Gospel— Matthew 22:32. The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob: He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. If then they are alive, they are not, to use your expression, kept in honourable confinement."
St. Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430), City of God, Book XXII, Ch.8: "Audurus is the name of an estate, where there is a church that contains a memorial shrine of the martyr Stephen. It happened that, as a little boy was playing in the court, the oxen drawing a wagon went out of the track and crushed him with the wheel, so that immediately he seemed at his last gasp. His mother snatched him up, and laid him at the shrine, and not only did he revive, but also appeared uninjured.
"A religious female, who lived at Caspalium, a neighboring estate, when she was so ill as to be despaired of, had her dress brought to this shrine, but before it was brought back she had gone. However, her parents wrapped her corpse in the dress, and, her breath returning, she became quite well.
"At Hippo a Syrian called Bassus was praying at the relics of the same martyr for his daughter, who was dangerously ill. He too had brought her dress with him to the shrine. But as he prayed, behold, his servants ran from the house to tell him she was dead. His friends, however, intercepted them, and forbade them to tell him, lest he should bewail her in public. And when he had returned to his house, which was already ringing with the lamentations of his family, and had thrown on his daughter's body the dress he was carrying, she was restored to life.
"There, too, the son of a man, Irenæus, one of our tax-gatherers, took ill and died. And while his body was lying lifeless, and the last rites were being prepared, amidst the weeping and mourning of all, one of the friends who were consoling the father suggested that the body should be anointed with the oil of the same martyr. It was done, and he revived.
"Likewise Eleusinus, a man of tribunitian rank among us, laid his infant son, who had died, on the shrine of the martyr, which is in the suburb where he lived, and, after prayer, which he poured out there with many tears, he took up his child alive.
"What am I to do? I am so pressed by the promise of finishing this work, that I cannot record all the miracles I know; and doubtless several of our adherents, when they read what I have narrated, will regret that I have omitted so many which they, as well as I, certainly know."