The veneration of the mortal remains of loved ones is nothing new. Nor can it be said to be distinctly Catholic; for it is a distinctly human practice that spans all ages, cultures, and religious inclinations.
Veneration simply means “to give great respect.” Thus, at its most basic understanding, to venerate the relics of loved ones is to give great respect to those things that one’s loved ones have left behind; including their bodies.
Every time an agnostic visits the grave (and thus the bones) of his deceased relative, for example, or an Evangelical Christian clings to the shirt of her dearly beloved grandmother, the veneration of relics—though not necessarily as an act of religious piety—takes place. The veneration of the material remains of loved ones seems to be a universal impulse of the human person; and the Catholic Church takes this natural human impulse and—as she does so often—elevates the custom to a supernatural level and dignity.
Christian relics are the material remains—and not always the bodily remains—of the saints or even Christ himself. They are typically organized into three classes. Third class relics are material items that have been touched to the saints, or to their bodies or personal possessions. Second class relics were personal possessions of the saints. First class relics are the actual body or fragments of the body of the holy ones.
The seven sacraments of the Church are visible signs that reveal and effect invisible realities. They are also the seven primary ways through which God communicates grace; that is, the free gift of his life and the power to be holy. But of course God is not bound by the sacraments for he is the omnipotent creator and curator of them. He can give grace in other ways if he so wishes. Relics are sacramentals (as are, for example, crucifixes and statues of the saints). By virtue of them being sacramentals, they are not sacraments. Rather they exist to prepare us to receive the sacraments (see CCC 1677). Thus sacramentals are not be looked at; they are to be looked along.
At the fullness of time God did the unthinkable and took on flesh; and he sanctified matter by becoming man. Ancient testimonies, both Christian and non-Christian, tell us that the carpenter from Nazareth was a walking wonder worker; and it was often through matter—whether through mud, loaves, fish, water, or human touch—that the Maker of all matter worked those supernatural deeds. The Christ had a soft spot for matter; and apparently he still does.
Now just as God works directly through his sons and daughters on earth, he also works through other things that have been made.
As I have said, the veneration of relics is not a distinctly religious thing; nor is it a distinctly Catholic thing; nor is it a distinctly Christian thing. Neither are the working of miracles through relics a distinctly Christian thing. In the Old Testament the coat of Elijah (after he had ascended to heaven) is tossed into a raging river only to part the waters and allow safe crossing (see 2 Kings 2). A few chapters later the bones of the prophet Elisha contact another man’s mortal remains at the bottom of a pit—and the man returns to life (2 Kings 13:20-21).
In the New Testament the examples of God working miracles through lowly material things are multiplied. St. Peter’s shadow (a privation rather than a positive thing, and yet still a fitting vessel of grace) in Luke’s Acts Of The Apostles serves as a blanket of healing—and the hopeful and faith-filled sick line the streets that they might touch God’s grace through the shadow of Peter (see Ch. 5:12-15).
When the handkerchiefs and aprons of St. Paul are touched to the sick and demon-stricken, healing flows from the hand of God through these (presumably used) handkerchiefs of the apostle (Acts 19:11-12). And of course, there is the example of our Lord’s cloak—that even at the touch of the hem (and not directly his body) a woman is cured of her hemorrhage by the power of God (Matt 9:20-22). ““If I only touch his garment, I shall be made well,” believed the woman; and she was right.
Religious relics are not magic items that hold power in and of themselves; they are vessels. The power of God is not contained in the saints’ relics—be they bones, books, or badly damaged running shoes—but rather, the power of God works along the relics, just as our veneration (and adoration) runs along them in the other direction. Relics are vehicles empowered by the grace of God.
For the Protestant and skeptic, the greatest difficulty in this matter of relics lies in the use of human remains for religious rites. Although the beautifully tear-jerking Martyrdom of Polycarp of the mid-second century does, in fact, mention the prayerful possession of the deceased St. Polycarp’s bones for the purpose of Christian veneration, it is true that the New Testament does not mention the veneration of bones, hair, and the like.
But the key to understanding this ancient aspect of Christian practice—and the way to make something so disagreeable agreeable—is to look to the center of the Gospel. At the center of the Gospel lies the resurrection of Christ; and the resurrection of Christ is only the beginning of a great rising that will take center stage at the end of time when all men and women are reunited with their long-corrupted bodies. Although our resurrected bodies will be radiantly beautiful, incorruptible, and unrestricted by the laws of physics, as St. Thomas suggested after prayerfully drawing from the Scriptures, our bodies will still be our bodies. Our resurrected bodies will be new; but they will not be different. They will not be different in the sense that they will still be our own, but more fully alive; fully alive, in fact.
The resurrection is the key to understanding the Christian practice of venerating relics; for we have the promise of a new heaven and a new earth when God will finally reconcile all things—material and immaterial—to Himself. And because the resurrection of the body is our real and promised destiny there remains an interminable, though mysterious, link between our corruptible bodies in this life and the souls that, only for a time, are separated from our body at death.
Relics are, in the end, perhaps just one more way for God to remind us that He is not finished with us; we are a work in progress even after death. One’s bodily death is final in the sense that what dies no longer lives; but it is not the Grande Finale where all humans will be reunited with their bodies once for all.
Yes, God raised Adam from the dust; and like Adam, to dust we will also return. But that’s not where our story ends. If our bodies are really and truly to be “temples of the Holy Spirit”, as St. Paul tells us, how fitting is it that God would make our bodies incorruptible; and work through bodily relics to remind us of that final state of bodily reality.
We believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting; we just all-too-often forget that we believe it. After all that has been said, it might be imagined that God’s willingness to work through the relics of the saints is one more way for God to remind those of us who forget the dignity and destiny of our now-imperfect and corrupting bodies: “I’m not finished with you yet.”
For more on relics visit my friend Fr. Carlos Martins’ website, TreasuresOfTheChurch.com.