The use of relics in the Catholic faith as a means of revitalizing our faith has a history going back literally to the days of the Old Testament. But before I talk about things from a few millenia ago, I’d like to tell you a little bit about a point in my own life.
Relics In Our Own Lives
My parents divorced when I was seven, and it was a bad breakup. Actually, scratch that. Saying it was “bad” is like saying World War II was loud: it’s true, but hardly does justice to the reality of the situation. It was a very, very difficult time for me and for all involved. And one of the results of it was that I did not see my father alive or any of his side of the family again after I was seven years old.
Fast forward: twenty-one years later, I learned that my father had just passed away. My mother had remarried a very good man who was everything I needed in a dad, but I was still curious about my father and his family, of whom I had few memories. I reunited with them and it was an emotional, joyful, tearful time, and a whole host of other wonderful things besides.
Among the things I still have from that first Easter weekend, now nearly two decades ago, is a box of keepsakes that belonged to my father. I was unprepared for how much holding something simple as a pair of shoes, or a screwdriver, a pair of vise grips (the first tool he’d taught me to use!) and other ordinary things of my father’s could make me feel. It brought back memories that had been lost, and was a powerful form of connection, communication, and forgiveness between us.
My uncle saw how I reacted to having these keepsakes. He later took a trans-Canada trip on his motorcycle from his home in Perth, Ontario to see my family and me in Vancouver, Washington. It was a journey of thousands of miles, but the distance he crossed to see us was not the only thing that touched me. He’d also built a special trailer for the journey, one specifically designed and built to bring my father’s desk to my home. It still sits proudly in my living room, having been used to hold art supplies, stationary, envelopes, and more than one of my children cramming for an assignment.
Let me make clear, though: My father was a man who had his issues, though he’d managed to conquer or tame most of them by the time he’d passed on. It was in part having things he’d used that helped me connect to his memory, forgive him for his wrongs, and love him again for who he’d tried to be to me.
Keepsakes of the Faith
If mementos of an ordinary man had that powerful an effect, is it any wonder that something of a saint, an elder brother or sister in the Church, something tangibly connected to those in the holiness Hall of Fame, could and should have an effect upon our faith lives today as Catholics?
The New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia notes that a relic consists “…of some object, notably part of the body or clothes, remaining as a memorial of a departed saint.” While some relics have been known and recorded as having curative or other miraculous powers, most relics exist to help the faithful remain connected to their faith in a way that a simple book or speech alone could not.
While it may seem to Protestants that venerating relics smacks of idolatry, or quasi-witchery, Christian history is replete with instances where God used remnants of Saints to show His miraculous power, or to bolster the faithful.
In the Old Testament, for example, the bones of the prophet Elijah touched a dead man’s body, resurrecting him from death (2 Kings 13:21) and prefiguring the resurrection of Jesus. In the New Testament, handkerchiefs and aprons that had been brought into contact with Saint Paul cured people (Acts 19:12), as did Saint Peter’s shadow when it fell upon the sick and lame (Acts 5:15).
Relics quickly came to hold an important place in the history and culture of the Christian Church. When Christians wished to say Holy Mass in Rome during times of persecution, they would often gather in the Roman catacombs. These underground tunnel networks served as graveyards, hospitals, and in a host of other functions for the early Church. In this era, the Mass was said with the coffin of a faithful Christian used as an altar. While the practice may seem odd or even grisly today, it served to remind the faithful that death in this world is our passage to eternal life with Christ in the next. Moreover, to this day every Catholic altar echoes this early practice by having the relic of a saint present within it.
The Enduring Power and Appeal of Relics
In the modern era, miracles continue to happen with the bodily remains or clothing of holy Saints. The blood of St. Januarius spontaneously liquefies today in its reliquary at least once a year, and multiple healings have been attributed to relics throughout Christian history. Today, a first-class relic is a remnant of the actual body of a saint of the Church. A second-class relic is something regularly used by a saint, such as clothing. A third-class relic is defined as an object that has touched a first or second-class relic, or the shrine of a saint if first and second-class relics are not available.
When I brought my children this summer on a mini-pilgrimage to see relics at the local monastery, it was an eye-opening experience for them, just as it was for me years ago to hold former possessions of my father. Imagine how silly it would have been had I chosen to say, “No, please keep these things of my father’s. They would get in the way of my having a personal relationship with him.”
As Catholics, unlike our separated Protestant brethren, we do not ask, “Do we have to use these things to get close to God?” As God made matter in creation and called it all “good,” so we see these many aids put in our path as good. Rather than ask if we “have” to use them, one should ask, “Why wouldn’t you want every aid imaginable? And may I have more, please?”