Catholic teaching has always emphasized the primacy and the supernatural nature of grace and how God’s power is often times manifested through material things. Premised on this, the Church has always made use of relics as channels of grace and blessing to the people of God.
What is a relic?
Relic derives from the Latin reliquiae, meaning “remains”, and a form of the Latin verb relinquere, to “leave behind, or abandon”. Relics are the physical remains of saints or holy people or, more generally, objects that have been in contact with holy individuals. They are kept in sacred places and are often thought to have the power to bring blessings to those who venerate them.
The use of the bones of Elisha brought a dead man to life: “So Elisha died, and they buried him. Now bands of Moabites used to invade the land in the spring of the year. And as a man was being buried, lo, a marauding band was seen and the man was cast into the grave of Elisha; and as soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood on his feet” (2 Kgs. 13:20-21). This is an unequivocal biblical example of a miracle being performed by God through contact with the relics of a saint!
Similar are the cases of the woman cured of a hemorrhage by touching the hem of Christ’s cloak (Matt. 9:20-22) and the sick who were healed when Peter’s shadow passed over them (Acts 5:14-16). “And God did extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried away from his body to the sick, and diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them” (Acts 19:11-12).
History of the use of Relics
The veneration of relics is seen explicitly as early as the account of Polycarp’s martyrdom written by the Smyrnaeans in A.D. 156. In it, the Christians describe the events following his burning at the stake: “We took up his bones, which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place, where the Lord will permit us to gather ourselves together, as we are able, in gladness and joy and to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom.”
We learn from St. Cyril of Jerusalem (before 350) that the wood of the Cross, discovered c. 318, was already distributed throughout the world; and St. Gregory of Nyssa in his sermons on the forty martyrs, after describing how their bodies were burned by command of the persecutors, explains that “their ashes and all that the fire had spared have been so distributed throughout the world that almost every province has had its share of the blessing.
In speaking of the veneration of relics in the early Church, the anti-Catholic historian Adolph Harnack writes, “[N]o Church doctor of repute restricted it. The numerous miracles which were wrought by bones and relics seemed to confirm their divine power. The Church therefore would not give up the practice, although a violent attack was made upon it by a few cultured heathens and besides by the Manichaeans” (Harnack, History of Dogma, tr., IV, 313).
In the fourth century the great biblical scholar, Jerome, declared, “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” (Ad Riparium, i, P.L., XXII, 907). `
The teaching of the Catholic Church with regard to the veneration of relics is summed up in a decree of the Council of Trent (Sess. XXV), which enjoins on bishops and other pastors to instruct their flocks that “the holy 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’ (1 Corinthians 6:19) and which are by Him to be raised 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 affirm that veneration and honour are not due to the relics of the saints, or that these and other sacred monuments are uselessly honoured by the faithful, and that the places dedicated to the memories of the saints are in vain visited with the view of obtaining their aid, are wholly to be condemned, as the Church has already long since condemned, and also now condemns them.
In the course of time, some Catholics began to abuse the use of relics. Some treated these relics like idols and began to worship them. Some scrupulous persons traded these holy objects for financial gains thus causing simony. Still some others, produced fake relics for sale.
Relics are ‘powerful’ as long as they are channels of grace and in as far as God can make use of them to bring restoration to those whom he chooses to. They are holy objects and must be treated as such. Bear in mind with God all things are possible and God can use anything and anybody to bring his blessings on humanity.
Below are some pictures of Relics in the Catholic Church:
Authored by Rev. Fr. Mark Mandela Anyigbah