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Unlocking the mystery of relics

What is a relic? What types of relics are there? And is praying with a relic merely a Catholic superstition?

New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan kisses a reliquary containing a relic of Blessed Carlo Acutis after receiving it from Archbishop Domenico Sorrentino of Assisi-Nocera Umbra-Gualdo Tadino, Italy, during Mass at St. Rita of Cascia Church in the South Bronx, N.Y., April 7, 2022. Cardinal Dolan accepted the reliquary on behalf of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis. The committee is spearheading a three-year eucharistic revival for the U.S. church, and Catholics will have opportunities to venerate the relic as part of the revival. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

There have been some reports in the news lately about relics arriving on U.S. soil.

  • On April 3, a relic of Blessed Carlos Acutis, the first millennial to be beatified, arrived in New York. The relic is a fragment of Acutis’ pericardium, the tissue which surrounds and protects the heart, and was transported from Italy by Archbishop Domenico Sorrentino of Assisi. It has since been venerated in several dioceses, and will remain in the U.S. throughout the U.S. Bishops’ multi-year National Eucharistic Revival, for which Blessed Carlos has been named an intercessor. Acutis, a young computer geek who had a deep devotion to the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, created a website which documented Eucharistic miracles around the world. He died of leukemia in 2006 at the age of fifteen, and he was beatified by Pope Francis on October 10, 2020.
  • Also of interest in the Catholic world, for the first time, relics of St. Bernadette of Soubiroux, including a rib bone, have come to the U.S. from France. Bernadette was only fourteen in 1858, when Our Lady appeared to her on eighteen separate occasions in the grotto at Massabielle, near Lourdes. Between April 7 and August 4 of this year, the relics will be venerated in more than 30 churches across the United States – all of which are dedicated either to St. Bernadette or to Our Lady of Lourdes.

For Catholics, it’s easy to grant legitimacy to relics, and to welcome the opportunity to pray near the earthly remains of a saint. For Protestants and nonbelievers, though, the idea of praying with a body part from a deceased saint can be a stumbling block. On social media and in person, I’ve seen recently the negative reactions of nonbelievers. An explanation is in order!

What, exactly, is a relic?

There are three different types of relics:

  • First-Class Relics are items directly associated with the events of Christ’s life (the manger, the cross, etc.), or the physical remains of a saint (a bone, a hair, skull, a limb, etc.)
  • A Second-Class Relic is an item which was worn by a saint (such as a shirt or a glove), or which the saint owned or frequently used (such as a crucifix or book).
  • A Third-Class Relic is an object that is touched to a first- or second-class relic. Most third-class relics are small pieces of cloth.

Relics from the life of Christ include, most famously, the Shroud of Turin but also the Sudarium of Oviedo, the cloth which was laid over Jesus’ head in the tomb. That cloth is referenced in John 20:6-7, which describes the wrappings left behind after Jesus’ Resurrection:

And so Simon Peter also came, following him, and entered the tomb; and he saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the face-cloth which had been on His head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself.

Pieces of the True Cross are among the most prized first-class relics. Many churches claimed to possess a piece of it, so many that John Calvin once remarked that there were enough pieces of the True Cross to build a ship. However, Calvin’s assertion was disproven in an 1870 study which found that all the known pieces of the cross, if put together, would weigh less than 1.7 kg—far less than what the Cross would have weighed.

Is praying with a relic merely a Catholic superstition?

Many Protestants object to the idea of venerating relics of saints. “Isn’t this just petty superstition?” they ask. Actually, no.

First, let’s clear up what a relic is not: The Church does not ascribe any “magical power” to relics. There is nothing in the relic itself – whether a bone of the apostle Peter, or a piece of a garment, or water from Lourdes – that has any curative ability. Only God can cure. However, Catholics believe that relics may be a help, that God may work through a relic to heal the sick or to work a miracle. The Holy Spirit’s indwelling can affect the physical body, and God can work miracles through the bodies of deceased saints.

A second important point is that Catholics do not, under any circumstances, “worship” relics.

St. Jerome wrote: “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.”

So why does the Church encourage its members to pray before relics?

Because in this, as in all things, the Church follows the Scriptures. As far back as the Old Testament, the relics of the deceased have been shown to possess a power which certainly comes from God.

One of the earliest verses which shows the efficacy of relics is in the Old Testament book of Second Kings (2 Kngs 13:20-21). The prophet Elisha had died and his body had been buried. In the spring of the year, an invading band of Moabites was burying a man from their tribe when they came upon the grave of Elisha. The Moabites tossed the deceased man into the grave, atop the bones of Elisha; and as soon as he touched the bones, the man was revived and stood on his feet.

In another example from the New Testament (Matt 9:20-22), the woman with the hemorrhage was cured by simply touching the hem of Christ’s garment.

Also in the New Testament, Acts 19:11-12 recounts the story of Paul’s handkerchiefs, which were imbued by God with healing power:

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.

Interestingly, the late, famous evangelical preacher Billy Graham adopted Paul’s custom – by sending his supporters “prayer handkerchiefs” over which he had prayed.

So if you reject the idea of using relics in Christian prayer, then you really should reject all of these examples from Scripture, as well. In fact, you should wonder why in the world Mary Magdalen and the women should ever have sought to anoint the Body of Christ, after his death by crucifixion. Yet you would be wrong to simply reject out of hand the possibility of God’s abundant grace flowing from the relics of his beloved saints.

Finally, can relics be bought or sold?

A quick check of E-bay turns up several relics, either real or purported, which are offered for sale—sometimes for hundreds of dollars. The Catholic Church, though, strictly forbids the sale of relics. The Code of Canon Law states:

§1190 §1 – “It is absolutely forbidden to sell sacred relics.”

§1190 §2 – “Relics of great significance and other relics honored with great reverence by the people cannot be alienated validly in any manner or transferred permanently without the permission of the Apostolic See.”


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About Kathy Schiffer 4 Articles
Kathy Schiffer is a Catholic blogger. In addition to her blog Seasons of Grace, her articles have appeared in the National Catholic Register, Aleteia, Zenit, the Michigan Catholic, Legatus Magazine, and other Catholic publications. She’s worked for Catholic and other Christian ministries since 1988, as radio producer, director of special events and media relations coordinator. Kathy and her husband, Deacon Jerry Schiffer, have three adult children.

6 Comments

  1. Considering our current moment in history, and Protestant protests against honoring (not worshipping) relics, three points:

    FIRST, this from a non-Catholic:
    “It is idle to talk about the wreck of Western civilization. It is already a wreck from within. That is why we can hope to do little more now than snatch a fingernail of a saint from the rack or a handful of ashes from the faggots, and bury them secretly in a flowerpot against the day, ages hence, when a few men begin again to dare to believe that there was once something else, that something else is thinkable, and need some evidence of what it was, and the fortifying knowledge that there were those who, at the great nightfall, took loving thought to preserve the tokens of hope and truth.”
    (Whittaker Chambers [author of “Witness,” 1952], in a letter to William Buckley, August 5, 1954, in “Cold Friday,” 1964).

    SECOND, finally, as for the Shroud of Turin, science now finds in a new way the dating to the time of Christ to be valid, and that the earlier and discrediting Carbon-14 dating was flawed:
    https://www.ncregister.com/interview/new-scientific-technique-dates-shroud-of-turin-to-around-the-time-of-christ-s-death-and-resurrection?utm_campaign=NCR&utm_medium=email&_hsmi=210572322&_hsenc=p2ANqtz-8S2gbPFPbsXA9l-tOMirdIchWaKrtpt9nZtSVy_5n1pbdGxD-vb3SI32r1vCUEjd_fiXoiwkffOGvfgbqK2WQGtApvNw&utm_content=210572322&utm_source=hs_email

    THIRD, and then there’s the witnessing of a post-Vatican II priest to a Protestant minister who complained about relics. Explained the priest: “we don’t worship relics; we worship banners!”

  2. In response to Reformation scorn for saints’ relics, entire skeletons were dug out of the catacombs and shipped to Germanic lands where nuns encrusted the holy bones with gems, gold trim, and fantastic costumes for display in churches. Whether these were the remains of actual saints, at least they were (most likely) those of early Christians.
    See wikipedia’s entry on “catacomb saints’: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catacomb_saints

    Do follow the link to more pictures on wikicommons. “Popular” Catholicism is so wonderfully strange.

  3. I have researched and “collected” (read ‘rescued’) relics of Catholic saints for over twenty years. I had previously discussed this with several different priests, and their consensus is the purchasing of relics with the intent of rescuing them from being traded as mere commodities is permissible by the Church. The sale of a relic is considered the sin of simony.
    On Ebay, on any given day one can peruse “saints and relics” to see literally hundreds of relics for sale, mostly from Europe. Prices go from around $100 to tens of thousands of dollars. There are other online dealers, one comes to mind in Amsterdam, that cater to the very wealthy relic collector.
    In these especially troubling times, my sole purpose is to preserve and protect these Sacred treasures of Holy Mother Church for future generations.

    • P.S. – should anyone following this article decide to take on the effort of rescuing Holy Relics, be advised that there are many, many vendors on Ebay and other sites who profit from selling fake relics. I have been burned myself over the years from enthusiastically purchasing relics that turn out to be counterfeit. Some of these illicit sellers have become quite good at their art. It takes time and much study of authentic relics to be able to tell the real from the fake.
      Caveat Emptor!

  4. I don’t know why church officials don’t start collecting items now from the church’s most shining examples of what a true Catholic looks like…..Biden and Pelosi. You have one from each sex……..how great is that? They are most proud of their Catholic upbringing and teaching and are at the highest offices in the USA. What a proud and historic time in church history.

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