Relics: Pious Devotion, Healing Power, or Something Else?

Last year, attending the diaconate convocation for the Archdiocese of Detroit, I wrote about how my husband and I were privileged to pray before a first-class relic of St. Teresa of Avila.

And What, Exactly, Is a Relic?

First, let’s clear up what it’s not.  Catholics do not, under any circumstances, “worship” relics.

St. Jerome wrote, “We do not worship, we do not adore, 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.”

There are three different types of relics:

  • First-Class Relics are items directly associated with the events of Christ’s life (the manger, the cross, etc.), or the physical remains of a saint (a bone, a hair, skull, a limb, etc.).
  • A Second-Class Relic is an item which was worn by a saint (such as a shirt or a glove), or which the saint owned or frequently used (such as a crucifix or book).
  • A Third-Class Relic is an object that is touched to a first- or second-class relic.  Most third-class relics are small pieces of cloth.

Relics from the life of Christ include, most famously, the Shroud of Turin.  Pieces of the True Cross among the most prized First-Class Relics; many churches claimed to possess a piece of it, so many that John Calvin once remarked that there were enough pieces of the True Cross to build a ship.  Calvin’s assertion was disproven in an 1870 study which found that all the known pieces of the cross, if put together,would weigh less than 1.7 kg.

Is Praying With a Relic Merely a Catholic Superstition? 

Catholics believe that only God can heal, but that God may in some cases permit healing through physical means, such as a relic of a holy person.  The Holy Spirit’s indwelling can affect the physical body, and God can work miracles through the bodies of deceased saints.  As far back as the Old Testament, the relics of the deceased have been shown to possess a power which certainly comes from God.

One of the earliest verses which shows the efficacy of relics is in the Old Testament book of Second Kings (2 Kings 13:20-21).  The prophet Elisha had died and his body had been buried.  In the spring of the year, an invading band of Moabites was burying a man from their tribe when they came upon the grave of Elisha.  The Moabites tossed the deceased man into the grave, atop the bones of Elisha; and as soon as he touched the bones, the man was revived and stood on his feet.

And in the New Testament, Acts 19:11-12 recounts the story of Paul’s handkerchiefs, which were imbued by God with healing power.

Can Relics Be Bought or Sold?

A quick check of E-bay turns up several relics, either real or purported, which are offered for sale—sometimes for hundreds of dollars.  The Catholic Church, though, strictly forbids the sale of relics.  The Code of Canon Law states:

§1190 §1 – “It is absolutely forbidden to sell sacred relics.”

§1190 §2 – “Relics of great significance and other relics honored with great reverence by the people cannot be alienated validly in any manner or transferred permanently without the permission of the Apostolic See.”

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  • Ruth Ann

    Happy feast of St. Teresa. Your article is very informative. I will share it with others.

  • Theresa Henderson

    I like to contemplate that we, living here on earth , are connected to those living in Heaven in the Body of Christ, and these relics are a physical reminder of that connectivity.

  • Melanie Rigney

    Beautifully done! I’m writing right now about misconceptions about Catholics, relics, icons, statues, etc. and love the way you set the record straight here.

    • Kathy Schiffer

      Melanie, I look forward to reading your book!

  • richard

    I possess a First Class relic of Saint Alexius with certification paper. However I do not know who he is or where he was from. I do know that he was a Confessor.

    • Kathy Schiffer

      Richard, St. Alexius was the son of a Roman noble who, feeling the call of God, forsook wealth and fame and became a beggar. I’ve found a website which includes a prayer to St. Alexius– appropriate, I think, for you since you have his relic.

  • Bob Rowland

    Father Alessio, who took care of Padre Pio during his last years, visited our home while we were working with him on the cause for Canonization of Padre Pio. Before he left, he gave me a bear hug and lifted me off my feet. When he set me down he handed me a first class relic of St. Francis. My wife Lori and did not feel worthy of such an honor, but it became our most prized possession. You can be sure it has a place of honor and is venerated in our home.

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  • Doug

    “St. Jerome wrote, “’We do not worship, we do not adore, 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.’”
    Some interesting fine-tuning of forms, there. I thought that “adoration” was OK. In any case, I wonder how veneration of relics gives ‘better adoration’ of Jesus. And, if Jesus is God, why not just worship him via the relics?
    In any case, such assistance via objects may be against Paul’s counsel: “For we walk by faith and not by sight.” 2 Cor 5
    Remember that the Jews had Solomon’s magnificent temple, directly from God, and it did them no good in the end. They lacked faith, “the assured expectation of things hoped for” [but not yet seen].

  • Dale

    Richard, when you mentioned St. Alexius, my first thought was of the Alexian Brothers. They are a religious community devoted to providing health care, due to their discipleship with Christ.

    If at any time you no longer have need for this relic, perhaps they would welcome receiving it.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    That, and selling relics has a tendency to end up “Fingers of the Saints! Available in boxes of 10″ with lots of homeless people in emergency rooms.