As a convert to Catholicism, I am always amazed by the faith’s beauty and traditions. Yet one of the most startling and, if I may be allowed, strange practices held by Catholicism are those of relics.
In this essay, I will explain this unusual and ancient tradition and the biblical basis for its use. I will begin by exploring what exactly relics are and their purpose. Lastly, I will review the types of relics maintained by the Catholic Church and identify some examples.
An Introduction To Relics
It could be argued that human beings possess a religious instinct or predisposition. A part of that instinct seems to include the use of relics in religious practices. Indeed, the use of relics pre-dates the advent of Christianity, for there is evidence of its use in Greek mythology, and the practice of relic worship remains a significant aspect of the Buddhist tradition.
So while not entirely limited to Catholicism, relics within the Catholic tradition can be defined as the bones, ashes, clothing, or personal possessions of the apostles and other holy people.
The use of relics within the Catholic tradition appears quite early. There is documentation from circa 156 from the ancient Greek city of Smyrna of the relics of Saint Polycarp being venerated. It is important to make a distinction at this point. That distinction is between worship and veneration.
Worship is an act of adoration reserved for God alone. As such, relics are not worshipped. Veneration is the honor paid to Saints by virtue of their holiness and sanctity. It is within the category of veneration that relics are placed.
The use of relics as an integral part of Catholic tradition is drawn from the Bible. As an example of the use of relics and their remarkable power, I will reference the story of Elisha. In 2 Kings 13:21, it appears that the bones of Elisha contained so much Grace that contact with them was sufficient to raise a person from the dead.
Another remarkable event of the use of a relic is depicted in the Gospel of Matthew. “A woman suffering hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the tassel on his cloak. She said to herself, ‘If only I can touch his cloak, I shall be cured.’ Jesus turned around and saw her and said, ‘Courage, daughter! Your faith has saved you.’ And from that hour, the woman was cured.” (See Matthew 9:20-22).
The Value And Purpose Of Relics
In a sense, relics share some similarities with the sacraments of the Church. Like sacraments, relics can convey the spiritual (i.e., Grace) through a physical object. Sacraments are, as Saint Augustine defined them, “the visible form of an invisible grace.”
The Council of Trent issued a decree expressing this understanding of relics as vehicles of God’s Grace. The Council wrote, “The holy bodies of holy martyrs and of others now living with Christ—which bodies were the living members of Christ and ‘the temple of the Holy Ghost’ and which are by Him to be raised to eternal life and to be glorified are to be venerated by the faithful, for through these [bodies] many benefits are bestowed by God on men”. (Council of Trent, twenty-fifth session, second decree).
There is, of course, nothing magical about the relics, just as there is nothing magical about the sacraments. Magic, if such a thing exists, claims that a thing of lower order can produce a thing of a higher order. A rabbit from a hat, as it were. Sacraments and relics (and metaphysics in general) inverse this order. It is the higher spiritual realm that acts upon the lower material realm.
Owing to this metaphysical reality, relics are links between the broken and corruptible world that we inhabit and the perfect and immaculate Heaven that is our true home. Extending the metaphor of relics as links, the Catholic Church categorizes relics based on the strength of that link.
Types Of Relics
The Church has created three classifications into which relics are placed.
A first-class relic is a body part of a Saint, such as bone, blood, or flesh, or anything associated with events involving Jesus Christ. An example of a first-class relic would be Saint Peter’s remains or Mary’s veil.
Second-class relics are possessions that a Saint owned. They can include clothing, books, rosaries, or anything directly related to or used by the Saint during his or her life. A unique example of this type of relic is the chain that attached the Apostle Paul to the Roman soldier while imprisoned in Rome. The relic is housed in the Papal Basilica of Saint Paul.
Third-class relics are objects that have been touched to a first or second-class relic, or the Saint has touched him or herself. An example of this type of relic would be if one were to take a Rosary or Crucifix and touch it to a relic such as the incorrupt body of Saint John Vianney, whose remains are interred above the main altar in the Basilica in Ars-sur-Formans in France.
At first blush, the use of relics may seem morbid. However, relics are remarkable symbols and vehicles of God’s Grace. Furthermore, relics can bridge the material world and the spiritual realm.
I will conclude this essay on relics by quoting Saint Jerome. “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” (Ad Riparium, I, P.L., XXII, 907).