Hi everyone – a lapsed Catholic here with a lot of questions, considering coming back to the Church.
I was watching the Colbert Report with my husband last night, and they were talking about the recent canonization ceremonies for the two past Popes. Colbert played some clips of the news coverage from the day, and one news anchor said that there were some “relics” of the past popes there – a piece of skin, in one case, and a vial of blood, in another.
I realize that Popes are priestly, holy people who represent God. But they’re still human. They’re still the created, not the Creator. Should we really be venerating parts of their human remains?
The relics of holy people are powerful. A man was resurrected from the dead because he touched the relics of a prophet.
And as a man was being buried, lo, a marauding band was seen and the man was cast into the grave of Eli’sha; and as soon as the man touched the bones of Eli’sha, he revived, and stood on his feet. (2 Kings 13:21)
People were healed by Paul through touching things which Paul himself had used.
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 11:12)
No one can say that relics are not Biblical, nor can it be denied that miracles can happen when venerated with faith in the power of God.
And, don’t forget sometimes just good old fashion reasonableness too. Since the Church deals with human beings, there are good natural reasons for many things too. . . for instance, people often keep a lock of hair or a handkerchief from a loved one (living or dead).
There is an old saying that “grace does not destroy nature but perfects it” (from St. Thomas Aquinas). When you look at things the Church does you can see how She (the Church!) takes into account human nature but doesn’t leave us there, but calls it towards something higher. For example, people often need to confess wrongdoing in order to have peace of mind, and some go to therapists for that very reason! The Church offers us the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which is more than therapy.
Although many non-Catholic Christians object to the use of relics, it is important to keep in mind what the Church says about relics. The Church does not say there is some magical power in them. There is nothing in the relic itself, whether a bone of the apostle Peter or water from Lourdes, that has any curative ability. The Church just says that relics may be the occasion of God’s miracles, and in this the Church follows Scripture.
The use of the bones of Elisha brought a dead man to life:
2 Kings 13:20-21
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.
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). Even more interesting is the evidence of “second-class” relics of Paul:
“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”
If these aren’t examples of the use of relics, what are?
In the case of Elisha, a Lazarus-like return from the dead was brought about through the prophet’s bones. In the New Testament cases, physical things (the cloak, the shadow, handkerchiefs and aprons) were used to effect cures. There is a perfect congruity between present-day Catholic practice and ancient practice. If you reject all Catholic relics today as frauds, you should also reject these biblical accounts as frauds.
The Martyrdom of Polycarp
Finally, let’s consider a passage from an ancient document known as “The Martyrdom of Polycarp” which illustrates the reverence that the earliest Christians had for the relics of their fallen comrades.
CHAPTER 18 – THE CHRISTIANS TAKE THE ASHES.
1 When therefore the centurion saw the contentiousness caused by the Jews, he put the body in the midst, as was their custom, and burnt it. 2 Thus we, at last, took up his bones, more precious than precious stones, and finer than gold, and put them where it was meet. 3 There the Lord will permit us to come together according to our power in gladness and joy, and celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already contested,1 and for the practice and training of those whose fate it shall be.
1 This is almost a technical term for martyrdom, cf. Ignatius’s epistle to Polycarp 1:3.
Polycarp was martyred ca. 155 AD. Since some anti-Catholics claim that the Catholic Church did not exist before the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, this account of Polycarp’s death includes an early example of the veneration of the bones of the Christian Church in accordance with the scriptures long before the Catholic Church “allegedly” even existed!
If you want watch the EWTN coverage of the canonization, there is a beautiful explanation by one of the commentators about the veneration of relics.
Edited to add the explanation as I have it on DVR-
'Christianity is a ‘carnationa’ (incarnational?) religion - Christ became man and sanctified all of humanity as a result. The baptized who receive the grace of regeneration - their bodies are made holy by the presence of the Holy Spirit, so the mortal remains are holy and we venerate them.; ‘There is nothing macabre about relics - Relics are in fact a sign of confidence that what Christ said, that when he returns at the end of the ages, the bodies of all the Saints will be reunited with their souls and will live forever in the New Jerusalem’.
Also, they said that the worship of God is not compromised by the veneration of relics. Relics remind us of God’s action of holiness in the lives of the faithful.
They are a reminder that Christ was present in the flesh here in reality.