What are relics and why are they important?
Biblical people have always reserved items associated with holy persons and events. Relics of ancient Israel’s past — the manna from the wilderness, Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the Law — were all set aside, deposited and reverenced in the Ark of the Covenant.
Scripture favorably describes and nowhere forbids the venerating of relics. Since the early days of the Church the remains of martyrs and holy persons have been called relics, from the Latin reliquiae, meaning “remains.” A reliquary is a vessel that contains and displays these remains.
The martyr was celebrated as the disciple who most faithfully imitated Christ in his death. His willingness to die for the name of Jesus bore witness par excellence to the life of the age to come, a life superior to this world that was passing away. Early Christian worship developed over the gravesites of those who had been martyred, since the martyrs were those who were thought to have been special vehicles of the Holy Spirit.
This was no mere idealizing of the dead. The martyr was an intimate of God who was still a living member of the Church. When his tomb and the Church’s altar were joined, the Roman world was jolted. Graves were now “non-graves,” private places were now public, township sites once reserved for the dead were now being inhabited by the living. Life was replacing death. A distinctive sign of a growing Christian community in late antiquity was the presence of shrines and relics.
Eventually, when churches were built in territories that had no martyrs, a fragment of a martyr’s remains would be embedded in or around the altar. By the Second Council of Nicea in 787, each church building had to contain a relic before it could be consecrated.
No, Christians weren’t worshipping the martyrs. Relics are simply mementos, not idols. A brick from the Berlin Wall or a scrap of a Tchaikovsky score all receive places of honor in a person’s home or library. We are grateful to let such contemporary “relics” stimulate our memories and affections, but we don’t worship or offer sacrifice to our deceased grandfather’s violin even though we hang it prominently in our foyer.
The Church is very cautious in investigating and approving relics. Anyone who makes or knowingly sells, distributes, or displays false relics for veneration incurs ipso facto excommunication reserved to the bishops. All relics must be authenticated and can only be publicly displayed if they have supporting documentation.
A first-class relic is the corpse of a saint or any part of it. Secondclass relics include any object sanctified by close contact with a saint or Our Lord. Third-class relics are objects or cloths touched to either first- or second-class relics. Relics are one more way that God demonstrates the fitness of the physical world to be a carrier of his grace and mercy.
Reprinted with permission from “Why Do Catholics Genuflect?” by Al Kresta (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2001).
Besides sacramental liturgy and sacramentals, catechesis must take into account the forms of piety and popular devotions among the faithful. The religious sense of the Christian people has always found expression in various forms of piety surrounding the Church’s sacramental life, such as the veneration of relics, visits to sanctuaries, pilgrimages, processions, the Stations of the Cross, religious dances, the rosary, medals, etc.
These expressions of piety extend the liturgical life of the Church, but do not replace it. They should be so drawn up that they harmonize with the liturgical seasons, accord with the sacred liturgy, are in some way derived from it and lead the people to it, since in fact the liturgy by its very nature is far superior to any of them.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1674-1675