Does The Modern Catholic Church Worship Relics?
What are Relics?
An object connected with a saint, e.g., part of the body or clothing or something the person and used or touched. Authentic relics are venerated with the Church's warm approbation. They may not be bought or sold. Those of a martyr is placed in the altar stone at the consecration of an altar.
Types of Relics
Relics are divided into three “classes.” Portions of the body of a saint itself are called first-class relics, and the clothing or other objects used by the saint, such as rosaries, are called second-class relics. A small piece of cloth or other objects that have been in contact with a first or second-class relic is a third-class relic. Often, the small pieces of cloth laminated into holy cards of a saint are relics of this latter type.
Items directly associated with the events of Christ’s life (manger, cross, etc.), or the physical remains of a saint (a bone, a hair, a limb, etc.). Traditionally, a martyr’s relics are often more prized than the relics of other saints. Also, some saints' relics are known for their extraordinary incorruptibility and so would have high regard. It is important to note that parts of the saint that were significant to that saint’s life are more prized relics. For instance, King St. Stephen of Hungary’s right forearm is especially important because of his status as a ruler. A famous theologian’s head may be his most important relic.
An item that the saint wore (a sock, a shirt, a glove, etc.) Also included is an item that the saint owned or frequently used, for example, a crucifix, book, etc. Again, an item more important in the saint’s life is thus a more important relic.
Anything which has touched a first or second-class relic of a saint.
What Does The Church Say About Relics?
In order to prevent abuses, Catholic Church law (Canon Law) forbids the sale of Relics (Can. 1190 §1). Catholics venerate relics in the same way as they venerate images, statues, and saints. This is often confused for idol worship, but veneration is actually the act of giving respect, rather than the act of worship which is forbidden. By canon law, there must be a relic in the altar stone of any altar in a Catholic Church upon which Mass is to be offered.
St. John Damascene wrote in Holy Images (730):
Now, as we are talking of images and worship, let us analyze the exact meaning of each. An image is a likeness of the original with a certain difference, for it is not an exact reproduction of the original. Thus, the Son is the living, substantial, unchangeable Image of the invisible God, bearing in Himself the whole Father, being in all things equal to Him, differing only in being begotten by the Father, who is the Begetter; the Son is begotten. The Father does not proceed from the Son, but the Son from the Father. It is through the Son, though not after Him, that He is what He is, the Father who generates. In God, too, there are representations and images of His future acts,-that is to say, His counsel from all eternity, which is ever unchangeable. That which is divine is immutable; there is no change in Him, nor shadow of change. Blessed Denis, [note: the Pseudo-Dionysius] who has made divine things in God's presence his study, says that these representations and images are marked out beforehand. In His counsels, God has noted and settled all that He would do, the unchanging future events before they came to pass. In the same way, a man who wished to build a house would first make and think out a plan. Again, visible things are images of invisible and intangible things, on which they throw a faint light. Holy Scripture clothes in figure God and the angels, and the same holy man (Blessed Denis) explains why. When sensible things sufficiently render what is beyond sense, and give a form to what is intangible, a medium would be reckoned imperfect according to our standard, if it did not fully represent material vision, or if it required effort of mind. If, therefore, Holy Scripture, providing for our need, ever putting before us what is intangible, clothes it in flesh, does it not make an image of what is thus invested with our nature, and brought to the level of our desires, yet invisible? A certain conception through the senses thus takes place in the brain, which was not there before, and is transmitted to the judicial faculty, and added to the mental store. Gregory, who is so eloquent about God, says that the mind, which is set upon getting beyond corporeal things, is incapable of doing it. The invisible things of God since the creation of the world are made visible through images. We see images in creation which remind us faintly of God, as when, for instance, we speak of the holy and adorable Trinity, imaged by the sun, or light, or burning rays, or by a running fountain, or a full river, or by the mind, speech, or the spirit within us, or by a rose tree, or a sprouting flower, or a sweet fragrance.
Clearly, he taught that relics of the saints are gifts from God to the Church, given to us as means of sanctification and that the faithful owe veneration to the relics because they are signs of the saints who are close to God. Thus, by venerating the relics we actually honor God.
St. Thomas Aquinas’s teaching on relics was similar. In his Summa Theologiae, he points out the fact of experience that anyone who feels affection for a deceased person shows respect to that person’s body and clothing. The saints are members of the same Mystical Body of which we are members and also intercede for us in heaven. We should therefore honor the bodies and possessions of these holy men and women who are such great spiritual friends to us. St. Thomas also points out that the bodies of the saints were the temples and tools of the Holy Spirit when they were alive and will be glorified at the resurrection of the body at the end of the world. Therefore, the bodies of the saints deserve special honor. Finally, Thomas distinguished between the worship or latria that we give to God alone and honor or doulia that we give to the saints and relics. In the 17th and 18th centuries, some theologians taught that veneration of the saints themselves is superior to the veneration of relics. Robert Bellarmine, however, taught that doulia is offered both to the saint and to the relics, but that it is offered to relics only relatively and to the saints themselves absolutely. Cardinal Billuart claimed that, in a way, the relics and their saints are one, and that therefore the relics deserve the same honor that the saints deserve.
What Does The Bible Say About Relics?
The use of relics has some, although limited, basis in Sacred Scripture.
II Kings 2:9-14, the Prophet Elisha picked up the mantle of Elijah, after he had been taken up to heaven in a whirlwind; with it, Elisha struck the water of the Jordan, which then parted so that he could cross.
II Kings 13:20-21, some people hurriedly buried a dead man in the grave of Elisha, “but when the man came into contact with the bones of Elisha, he came back to life and rose to his feet.”
In Acts of the Apostles we read, “Meanwhile, God worked extraordinary miracles at the hands of Paul. When handkerchiefs or cloths which had touched his skin were applied to the sick, their diseases were cured and evil spirits departed from them”
Acts 19:11-12, In these three passages, a reverence was given to the actual body or clothing of these very holy people who were indeed God’s chosen instruments– Elijah, Elisha, and St. Paul. Indeed, miracles were connected with these “relics”– not that some magical power existed in them, but just as God’s work was done through the lives of these holy men so did His work continue after their deaths. Likewise, just as people were drawn closer to God through the lives of these holy men, so did they (even if through their remains) inspire others to draw closer even after their deaths. This perspective provides the Church’s understanding of relics.
Do Catholics Worship Relics?
Catholics see the members of the Church as members of a family. Of course, as human beings — composites of body and soul — the Church honors their bodies after death. We, of course, do this as well in our families when we visit and decorate graves on birthdays, death dates, or holidays. Made in God’s image and likeness, we recognize the dignity of the human person by honoring their earthly remains — that is why the Church demands proper disposal of a person’s remains (burial of body or cremains).
Within this context, then, we should understand that relics are meant to be honored and venerated, not worshipped. In fact, the saints lead us to fuller worship of God in spirit and truth. By honoring their memories, bodies, and belongings, we give thanks to God for the saint’s holy witness. Relics are physical, tangible, concrete reminders that heaven is obtainable for us — so long as we recognize what made the saints holy and work to apply those qualities to our lives. When venerating relics we express gratitude to God for those members of our spiritual family. In the presence of the relics, we recall their holy lives and we pray for the grace to achieve what they’ve achieved — eternity with God in Heaven.
Relics have been used in the Church for many years. The early Church and the Eastern Church were strong believers in relics. The Church does not worship the relic, rather they venerate what the relic stands for, and by showing veneration, the person pays homage to God. This is no different than people saving items from famous athletes or movie stars. If you had Yankee slugger Mickey Mantle’s rookie card in mint condition at your house, you would probably put it up and put it in glass or plastic. You would admire it but you would also know that you are not worshipping it, or you are not trying to make this Rookie Card into him- it is simply a representation of him and you are paying homage to the career and work of Mickey Mantle. Now, if this works for you, why not apply the same logic to other things. The concept that we, as Catholics, worship relics is ridiculous. Relics serve a purpose and have kept us focused throughout the centuries. A relic of today is not traditional belief, the relic of today becomes the inescapable thought that somehow we need to forget our history or not honor people from our past. This is a shame, this is horrible, and this is plain wrong. Come back to the faith of our forefathers through the use of relics to finely focus your talents and abilities. Amen