Dear Fr. Leo
Is the Catholic Church the only church that venerates relics? What’s the deal with relics, anyway?
In truth, relics are venerated not only by Catholics, but also by Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Christians. Due to some of the abuses which happened in the Middle Ages, the churches and ecclesial communities which grew out of the Reformation do not. Nevertheless, in their Instruction Relics in the Church: Authenticity and Preservation, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints says, “Relics in the Church have always received particular veneration and attention because the body of the blesseds and of the saints, destined for the resurrection, has been on earth the living temple of the Holy Spirit and the instrument of their holiness, recognized by the Apostolic See through beatification and canonization.”
The mortal remains of family and loved ones are special. This was the body that was baptized, confirmed and received all the other sacraments. They are the remains of one who loved their spouse, raised their children, taught us the lessons of life. Now in death, these same remains await the resurrection of the dead to glory. It makes sense then that within the family of the Church, the remains of saints and blessed are special. They are members of the Christian Hall of Fame, so to speak. Many of them used their bodies to preach and heal and work other miracles in their lifetimes.
Having grown up here in Alaska, I was at first quite puzzled by the veneration of relics of the saints held in broader Catholic culture. But part of my own family experience helped me to understand a bit better. My paternal grandmother used to make some pretty darn good pies. She lived to the age of 90, and when she died, her household goods were distributed among the grandchildren. Many of my sisters also make darn good pies. One of them received our grandmother’s rolling pin, and now she uses it to make her pies. She tells us that every time she uses it, she feels much closer to Grandma.
Now scroll back just a few centuries in history. Unlike today, there were no smartphones or digital photography or other accessible means of recording the memory of past loved ones. Their personal items served that purpose to an extent, but their graves served as their lasting memorial. Honoring a loved one’s tomb, or more specifically, their mortal remains within that tomb were, and are, an especially fitting way of honoring their memory. So it is with the saints. We venerate their lives and honor their memory when we honor their relics.
The Instruction distinguishes between “significant relics” and “non-significant” relics, based essentially on how integral the remains are. The body of the blesseds and the saints or notable parts of the bodies themselves or the sum total of the ashes obtained by their cremation are traditionally considered significant relics. Tiny fragments of the body of the Blesseds and the Saints and objects that have come in direct contact with their person are considered non-significant relics.
Another traditional way of speaking about relics is to refer to them as “first, second, and third class.” A first class relic is all or part of the authenticated mortal remains of a canonized saint or blessed. A second class relic is some object that was worn or used by a saint, such as a garment or a breviary, or even a rolling pin. A third class relic is simply some object what has been touched to a first class relic.
As you can imagine, great care is taken to make sure that relics are properly authenticated and preserved. The aforementioned Instruction from the Congregation for the Causes of Saints spells out the process of authentication and preservation in great detail. Since the relics of the saints are part of the patrimony of the Church, it is absolutely forbidden by Church law to sell sacred relics. (Canon Can. 1190 §1).
The veneration of relics by the faithful is a very tangible way in which we express our belief in the communion of saints; namely, that those who have gone before us in faith, canonized and uncanonized, are praying for us and with us that we might one day join them in perfect communion with Our Lord and one another.
Got a question about the Church or the Faith? Fr. Leo Walsh, JCL, STD, is your local canon lawyer and theologian. He currently serves in the archdiocese as Judicial Vicar and Pastor of St. Patrick’s in Anchorage. Email your question to: firstname.lastname@example.org.