What Are Relics?

Image of the Legend of the True Cross by Piero della FrancescaA relic is either the bodily remains of a saint, or an object that belonged to a saint or touched (or was touched) by Jesus or a saint.

The Church teaches that relics are instruments of divine grace, and thus sources of healings and conversions. While devotion to relics may seem strange to non-Catholics, it is in fact a thoroughly biblical practice.

The Church reveres the bodies of saints as members of Christ’s Body and temples of the Holy Spirit (see Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians Chapter 6:15 and 19), and  it views relics as proof that God does not forsake our physical nature, but redeems it “from its bondage to decay” (see his Letter to the Romans, 8:21).

The veneration of relics, moreover, points to the bodily resurrection promised to the followers of Christ (see, again, the Letter to the Romans, 8:21).

This is especially true of the Incorruptibles: those rare instances, inexplicable to science, in which the body of a Saint has resisted decay.1

Image of Miracle of the Relic of the True Cross by Vittore CarpaccioThe Church also teaches that God’s grace may be received through the body of a holy man or woman because it has been consecrated to God, and there is a strong biblical precedent for this. For example, the Israelites carry the bones of Joseph with them through the wilderness (see Exodus 13:19), and his bones were later buried in sacred ground at Shechem (see Joshua 24:32). In the Second Book of Kings, a dead man is resurrected when his body comes into contact with the bones of the Prophet Elisha (13:21), and in the New Testament, the followers of Saint John the Baptist come for his body after he is put to death by Herod (see Matthew 14:12).

People are healed by touching the fringe of Jesus’ garment (Matthew 9:20-22, et al.), by Saint Peter’s shadow (the Acts of the Apostles 5:15), and cloths that have been pressed to the body of Saint Paul (Acts, again, 19:11-12).

From the historical record, we learn that around the year 156 the Christians in Smyrna gathered up the charred bones of their martyred Bishop, Polycarp, who had been a disciple of the Apostle John. They wrote that they considered the Saint’s bones to be “more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold;” and reserved them in a special place for veneration (The Martyrdom of Saint Polycarp 18:2-3). This practice has been maintained by the faithful of all generations.

Image of St Veronica with the Sudarium by the Master of Saint Ursula LegendOthers often have difficulty with the veneration of relics because of their own view of Creation. From their perspective, the thought of God using material things to convey His grace is utterly appalling. Catholicism, though, in the likeness of the Lord Jesus, its Founder, is an incarnational religion, i.e, God as man: fully-god, fully-human in every way but sin.

Acknowledging man was created with a body as well as a soul, the Church does not denigrate the physical world, but raises it up to God for renewal (see Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, 6:19-20).

This is especially true of the Sacraments, which are visible signs that convey grace.

Other instances of material things used in Scripture as channels of grace include:

  • water: see Exodus 30:17, the Book of  Numbers 8:6; John 3:5, et al.;
  • flesh: see Genesis 4:4; Exodus 12:8; John 6:51-58;
  • blood: see Exodus 12:22 & 24:6; the Book of Leviticus 14:4; Matthew 26:28; John 6:53-56, et al.;
  • bread and wine: see Genesis 14:18; Exodus 12:15 & 20; Matthew 26:26, et al.;
  • oil: see Mark 6:13;
  • clay: see John 9:6.
  1. Jesus taught that God “is not God of the dead, but of the living” (Luke 23:43). So, the souls of those who have died in friendship with God are not “asleep” in the grave, but rule with Him in heaven. The common biblical reference to the dead being “asleep” (see Matthew 9:24) is simply a way of expressing the transience of death and has to do specifically with the body of the deceased, not the soul (see Matthew 27:52). The body remains on earth for a time while the soul enters into eternity. Catholics believe that at the Last Judgment, the body will be resurrected and reunited with the soul.