Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs – Relics

Article

The Christian cult of saints’ relics originated from the practice of carefully and reverently collecting and interring the remains of the ancient martyrs, of which many instances are mentioned in the Roman martyrology. Very early, reverence to the saints expressed itself in a special cult of their relics. The popular veneration soon also extended to the dust of their graves and to objects that had been touched by the relics. The ancient Fathers, especially Saint Augustine (430), already had to warn Christians against superstitious practices which easily crept into the cult of saints.

In medieval times, when the genuine or legendary bodies (or part relics) of many saints were brought to the newly converted countries of the North (central Europe, Germany, Holland, England), a period of enthusiastic devotion to relics ensued in those regions. The bodies were received with great ceremony by the ecclesiastical and civil authorities, thousands of people gathered for the occasion, solemn processions escorted the relics into town, all church bells rang, and great festivities were held. It was a general custom to dress the skeletons in appropriate and ornate vestments, decorate them with jewelry, gold, and silver, and expose them to the view and veneration of the faithful in gorgeous glass caskets at the altars of churches.

Besides these official forms of veneration of relics, people practiced a thousand personal cult actions, especially with small relics or pseudo relics they had obtained for private use. Many of these features of veneration were objectionable, if not downright superstitious. The Church authorities had to issue stern prohibitions against abuses in all centuries past. Today such abuses have practically disappeared, and the cult of relics is now strictly regulated by the Code of Canon Law.

MLA Citation

  • Father Francis Xavier Weiser, SJ. “Relics”. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, 1952. CatholicSaints.Info. 15 February 2017. Web. 21 October 2017. <>