Externals of the Catholic Church – The Veneration of Relics

There is a point of Catholic doctrine which is generally misunderstood and nearly always misrepresented by those outside the Church. The veneration which Catholics show to relics is usually classed as “a superstition,” “a form of idolatry,” “a survival of paganism” – simply because our non-Catholic and anti-Catholic critics have no accurate idea as to what our Church believes and teaches concerning relics; because they seem to be incapable of distinguishing between adoration and veneration; and because they take it for granted that anything that ever existed in pagan religions must necessarily be false and wrong and un-Christian.

Not a Superstition

Catholics are not superstitious when they give to relics the religious veneration which the Church permits. Catholics are not idolaters at any time, for they give adoration to none but God. Catholics are not guilty of paganism when they use a form of devotion which happens to resemble something that was found useful in pagan worship – for we must remember that paganism was not all false. It was the result of the instinct of worship which God has implanted in the nature of man. It was false inasmuch as it led man to worship false divinities; it was true inasmuch as it caused him to worship at all.

The veneration of relics is a primitive instinct. Even apart from religion, how common the practice has always been of preserving all that has had any connection with one who has been loved or reverenced! A lock of hair, a portrait, a little child’s shoe – anything that has belonged to the object of our love – is treasured as if it were of inestimable worth. And in religion the same holds true; for the honoring of relics is found in many other forms of religion besides Christianity. The Greeks honored the supposed remains of heroes, sages and demigods; the pious Buddhists still preserve and venerate the relics of Gautama. And these pagan examples were commendable in so far as they showed religious faith, even though the object of that faith was false.

What are Relics?

What do we Catholics mean when we speak of relics? They are the bodies of departed saints, fragments of their bodies, or articles which they have used, such as clothing, vestments and the like – or, in the case of relics of our Lord, they are objects which are reputed to have been connected with His life or sufferings, such as the manger of Bethlehem, the crown of thorns, the nails, fragments of the cross, etc.

What does our Church teach concerning them? That teaching is clearly set forth in a decree of the Council of Trent: “The 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 to be raised by Him 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; so that they who now affirm that veneration and honor are not due to the relics of the saints, that these are uselessly honored by the faithful, and that the places dedicated to the memories of the saints are visited in vain, are wholly to be condemned.”

Why Do We Honor Them?

The Catholic devotion to relics is founded upon two great principles of the Church’s teaching regarding the saints. First, she honors the saints; and when they were living on earth they, like all men, were composed each of a body and a soul. The virtues which a saint practised were not virtues of the soul- only; they were proper to the whole individual, to his body as well as his soul, for body and soul labored and suffered together. The soul of a saint is in heaven. Now the bodies of those who are in heaven are certain to rise again to a glorious immortality. The Church, then, joyfully anticipates the glory which God will give to these bodies at the last day. She pays religious homage to them – even to small fragments of them; and she gives similar honor even to things that were closely connected with the earthly life of those servants of God.

Secondly, Catholics believe that God is sometimes pleased to honor the relics of the saints by making them instruments of healing and other miracles, and that He bestows graces and favors on those who keep and venerate them – for the honor that is paid to such relics is really veneration of the saint himself, which gives glory to God and secures for us the intercession of those who stand before God’s throne in heaven.

A Few Objections

“Is it not superstitious to suppose that there is a physical efficacy in a relic which will cause it to work a miracle?” Probably it would be superstitious if we supposed it; but we do not. We believe that the relics of the saints are the occasion of the working of a miracle by God, through the intercession of the saint who is honored when the relic is honored. Far from believing that a relic can work a miracle by any power of its own, we Catholics do not believe that a saint, or even the Blessed Virgin, can do so. The power of God is the only power that can effect a miracle. The saint can merely, by intercession, obtain the exercise of that power of God in our behalf.

“But does it not border on idolatry, or at least does it not detract from the worship of God, when honor is paid to relics?” Saint Jerome was a good Christian. Let us hear what he says. “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.” Could the Catholic teaching be set forth more clearly?

As Old as the Church

The Catholic practice of honoring relics goes back to the beginning of Christianity. When the brave martyrs gave their souls to God in the arena or at the fiery stake, there were always found equally brave Christians who gathered together the dismembered remains, the blood or the ashes, and preserved them as a priceless treasure. Burial near the tomb of a martyr was especially desired by the pious faithful. Objects that had merely touched the remains of a saint were thereafter treated as relics. When the wood of the True Cross was discovered by the Empress Helena, it was soon divided into minute fragments, so that within a few years, in the words of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, it “had filled the whole world.” And as the number of the Church’s saints increased in the course of centuries, so also the number of venerated relics was multiplied. The people of every parish naturally desired to have a relic of the saint to whom their church was dedicated; and on account of the difficulty or impossibility of obtaining bodies or parts thereof, it became customary to venerate clothing, vestments and other things which were reputed to have been used by the saint.

The Question of Abuses

“But have there not been many abuses and deceptions regarding alleged relics?” Undoubtedly – hundreds of them. They were almost unavoidable in a matter which lent itself so easily to error and greed of gain. The demand for relics caused frauds to be perpetrated by unscrupulous men. Many of the writers of the Middle Ages tell us of grave abuses, of a regular trade in reputed objects of devotion which were, no doubt, mostly fraudulent. Popular enthusiasm and the rivalry among religious houses, each seeking to be known as the possessor of some great relic, caused many deceptions to be practised, intentionally or otherwise. Copies or models of relics were made, and in some cases these were afterwards confused with the originals. Objects which at first were venerated because they had touched a relic, were later considered to be relics themselves.

Against all these abuses the Church has constantly striven, by requiring the approval of the Holy See for newly found relics, by forbidding the sale of any such articles, and by restricting in every feasible way the veneration of those which have not at least a probable authenticity. It is true that she has allowed the honoring of certain doubtful relics to continue. But we must remember that the passing of a final opinion upon many of these is no easy task. In some cases, veneration has been paid to them for many centuries* – and devotions of an ancient date cannot be swept aside at a moment’s notice without disturbance and scandal. Therefore, unless the evidence of spuriousness is so great as to amount to practical certainty, the Church usually lets them alone.

Relics in Altar-Stones

The relics of two canonized martyrs are placed within every altar-stone, and with them are sometimes included the relics of the saint in whose memory the altar is erected. In a fixed altar these relics are contained in a metal box or reliquary of oblong shape, which fits a cavity in the altar-stone and is covered by a stone lid. When relics are exposed for public veneration in a church, they are usually contained in an elaborate reliquary, somewhat resembling the ostensorium used at the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Many of the great churches of Europe have large collections of relics – some undoubtedly genuine, some very probably spurious.

Among the most famous are those of Rome, Aix-la-Chapelle, Cologne, Naples and Antwerp; and in the Church of Saint Anthony, at Padua, are many relics of its titular Saint and of other servants of God.