In this article we are going to talk about what are relics and why do Catholics have, use, and venerate relics? We are going to show that relics are not only historical, but they’re also biblical.
Many people say that you have to worship God in spirit and in truth, which is true. But they conclude that therefore “Spirit” means you can’t worship God with any physical objects. This is actually false. God uses physical means many times to communicate to us spiritual realities. That’s exactly what the sacraments are. Through the sacraments, God gives us his divine life and grace. For example, in baptism, the waters communicate rebirth to us by God’s power. God uses bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper, in the Eucharist, to give us his graces. In the anointing of the sick, we use oils, sacred oils, as it says in James 5: 14.
Even in the Bible in John 9, Jesus did this as well: He sometimes healed people directly, but at other times, he used spit to make clay that he put on a man’s eyes, and he healed him in that way. Likewise in Matthew 9:19-20, a woman was healed just by touching the garments of Jesus. So, it wasn’t just prayer. She actually touched the garments and was healed by it. She used physical means.
In a sense, we are human, we need to touch, hear, see, taste and smell. We are body and soul. We are not just floating spirits around. We need to experience and behold God through physical means as well. Again, this is the sacraments, and this is where relics come in as well.
God can use physical objects or even people to heal us or to bring about some miracle in our life.
The word “Relic” means remains, and it generally started with martyrs who died, and they were venerated. So generally, relics are martyrs or saints. But over time, it also came to be known as things that were associated with them, things that they owned. Clothing, tools, etc., these can all be considered relics.
Now, on the surface, people say: “That’s superstitious for you to have their bones. You have their bodies and their clothes that they used to wear!” But God works and has worked throughout history through many of these things, and as we’re going to see, it’s also biblical.
In 2 Kings 2:13, we see that God worked miracles through the mantle of Elijah. And in 2 Kings 13:20, God worked miracles through the dead bones of the prophet Elisha. A person was brought back to life just by touching the dead bones. Can you imagine that somebody who touches the dead bones of a prophet comes back to life? If anybody heard that, they would be like: “That is so pagan, that’s just superstitious garbage!” Yet, this is in the Bible. Elisha and Elijah were two saints who were so holy and so close to God that God worked extraordinary wonders and miracles through them in their lives on earth, but also, after they died.
If you haven’t checked out our video on Blessed Margaret of Costello, check it out here, because a girl who came up and touched Margaret after she died was completely and miraculously healed on the spot. The story is amazing.
All through Christian history, God has worked through people in this way, alive and dead. One thinks of St. Bernadette when people went to her grave site. So many people were being healed just by praying at her grave site. They decided to dig up the body and discovered that it was incorrupt.
Listen to what Acts 19:11-12 says: “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.”
Again, many people on the outside, usually Christians non-Catholics would say: “Oh my gosh, this is just superstitious garbage. They’re taking aprons and they’re taking handkerchiefs, whatever they can find, and they’re touching it to Paul’s body and then they’re bringing it to people for them to be healed, that is so superstitious.” But yet the Bible says that they were healed. They would touch it to Paul’s body and then they would bring it to the people and touch it to their foreheads and they would be cured. Demons were even cast out in this way because God worked extraordinary miracles through Paul. Notice it doesn’t say that it worked extraordinary miracles through the handkerchiefs or through the aprons, which is true, but it wasn’t those that caused the miracle. It was Paul in his holiness in life, his faithfulness, his obedience, his faith in God. God worked because of Paul’s faith in him, and he uses Paul and objects that touch Paul, to heal other people.
This is the way God has traditionally worked in the lives of the saints. We’ve seen so many saints perform extraordinary miracles and even some of their objects that have touched people have caused extraordinary miracles. I mean, with Peter, in the book of Acts, people were just trying to get into his shadow! By standing in his shadow, they were healed, because that’s how God works extraordinarily through people who follow him extraordinarily.
So, we don’t worship these items. They have nothing to do with worship. We don’t worship them or adore them. They’re just mementos of saints, of martyrs, of people who lived extraordinary lives for Christ. And we know that God can work in and through them. It’s God’s power. It’s God’s work. It’s God’s victory. If anything miraculous happens, it’s God. It has nothing to do with the items at all, except their connection to the holy people who had faith in God just as Paul did.
The word “Relics” means, remains, and it started, as we said, with the martyrs who had died, and their bodies would be venerated. Not specifically the bodies themselves, but the lives of these saints. The people who died for Christ gave up everything for him, surrendered everything to the point of death. Jesus said, if you try to save your life in this world, you will lose it. But if you give up your life, you will find it. So, these people, saints and martyrs were venerated by the earliest Christians for their extraordinary life and for following Christ. For example, Polycarp was a follower of St. John, just as St John was a disciple of Jesus and followed him. When he died, people venerated his body. They said they treated it as more precious than jewels and gold because this was a man who lived for Christ. This was a true disciple, something worth venerating. His life, his faith, his obedience, and his sacrifice out of love for Christ. We are celebrating spiritual holy things here. We’re not worshiping the person itself. We’re not worshiping the body. We’re not worshiping the clothes that touched the body, we’re worshiping Jesus Christ and his work in these people.
These are the things to be venerated. I mean, we venerate silly things all the time. Like my friend and I, when we were kids, we went to a professional wrestling event, remember that WWF back in the day and now it’s WWE. My friend’s wrestler man took his gum and he hit it out into the audience. My friend ran to get that gum and he picked it up and he put it on his bureau, and it was there for years and years. He venerated that gum. He used it as a sign that he loved that wrestler, and he got his gum! I remember I danced with my crush in high school and as soon as she put her hands around me when we were dancing, I remember thinking: “Wow, this girl, I am actually dancing with her, this is my dream come true.” And I didn’t wash that shirt for weeks. I literally venerated that shirt. That was special to me. It was a memento of that memory, of that dream coming true, which I didn’t want to forget. It had nothing to do with the shirt itself. I didn’t put the shirt up with candles around it and incensed it or start bowing for it and worshiping it. No, of course not. It has nothing to do with the shirt itself. It had to do with the memory of the girl that I liked. People do this all the time with signed New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox paraphernalia, posters, shirts, etc. Anything that’s signed by a player, they put that in their house, and they venerate that. They remember that that’s special to them.
But how much more infinitely special are those people who live for Christ? How much more should we remember those people who give up their lives for Christ, who have extraordinary lives of holiness and do not care for the silly things of this world but live for the world to come. That’s what we are venerating, and we are not worshiping them or their clothes or anything else. We are worshiping Christ.
And to sum this up, many of the earliest Christians believed this down through the centuries. And I want to quote one of them right here because I think they sum it up perfectly for us: “It is true. We Christians refuse to worship or adore, I say not the relics of the martyrs, but even the sun and the moon, the angels and the archangels to come. For we may not serve the creature rather than the creator who is blessed forever. Still, we honor the relics of the martyrs that we may adore him, whose martyrs they are. We honor the servants, that their honor may be reflected upon the Lord.” That’s Saint Jerome in the fourth century. And there are many people all going back to the time of Polycarp who all say that God worked even miracles through his saints. Saint Augustine says that God has worked miracles through his saints and even through objects that the Saints have touched.
We don’t worship those things themselves. People didn’t worship the handkerchiefs with Paul, they worshiped God who did the miracles through Paul and through the handkerchiefs, through the aprons and through the shadow of Peter and many other things.
We praise the God of the universe who works in many ways and can’t be constrained. We can’t put him in a box and say: “Oh, God only works this way, or God only works this way.” He’s the God of the universe and he can work whatever way he wants. And relics are about honoring holy men and women of God. They’re about remembering their legacies. Just as I remembered that girl by holding onto that shirt until my mom washed it, and I was incredibly angry with her. Every time I wore that shirt up until that point, I remembered that dance and I remembered that girl, and I remembered my experience. When we have these objects, we remember the holy men and women of God. We remember their extraordinary lives of holiness and how they served the creator of the universe, and how that is an example for us to do the exact same thing.