Why do we have relics?

Next week in the 8th grade Faith Formation class I teach we are doing a chapter on Saints. One of the sub topics I am going to cover is on relics. Why do we keep those and for what purpose? The kids last year were kind of grossed out knowing they were bones or hair. I explained but my explanations were a little light so I am looking for a better explanation that I can pass on.


I teach 7th and 8th grade faith formation at my parish :-). I would point out the biblical basis for our view of relics which you can find in 2 Kings 13:21 and Acts 19:11-12 (this is something frequently attacked by Protestants as being “unbiblical” and “pagan” so I think Catholics should know the biblical basis so they can defend it)

It’s the “sacramental principle” at work --God working through physical matter to give grace, in this case the remains of holy people


Perhaps you can lay a little groundwork first? Actually, perhaps you can get THEM to lay their own groundwork, by asking them why THEY keep relics, and for what purpose?

I’m sure you will get a few blank looks. But ask them again: “Why do YOU keep relics?”

Then you could ask them if any of them have ever gone to a concert, play, sports event and still have the ticket. Or does anyone have a treasured photograph? Or does anyone have a seashell from a particular beach?

Obviously there will be many examples of “relic-type” things, and many natural and very human reasons for keeping them. And maybe with this foundation you can transition into Relics proper and the theology behind it. Grace builds on nature, right? So then you distinguish betweeen these natural relics and Relics proper, and how God gives grace associated with certain material items as they raise our minds and hearts to God.

What do you think?

When Joseph was in Egypt, he told his brothers not no leave his bones there – and when Moses led the children of Israel through the red sea – Joseph’s bones were in the baggage car! (Gen 50:25; Ex 13:19; Josh 24:32; Sir 49:15)

The bones of Elisha restored a dead man to life. (2 Kings 13:21)

The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. The relics in every Catholic altar are of martyrs.

Acts 19:11-12: 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.

I see what you mean. I have found the fastest and most long lasting teaching comes from when they lay the groundwork themselves and we then dive into more deeply with what they have said, their words and not mine. It is very difficult to wiggle out of your own words.

Thanks guys and keep the responses coming!


In regard to the physical remains of the saints. . . I think St. Thomas Aquinas’s answer (quoting St. Agustine!) is the best:

Whether any kind of worship is due to the relics of the saints?

I answer that, As Augustine says (De Civ. Dei i, 13): “If a father’s coat or ring, or anything else of that kind, is so much more cherished by his children, as love for one’s parents is greater, in no way are the bodies themselves to be despised, which are much more intimately and closely united to us than any garment; for they belong to man’s very nature.” It is clear from this that he who has a certain affection for anyone, venerates whatever of his is left after his death, not only his body and the parts thereof, but even external things, such as his clothes, and such like. Now it is manifest that we should show honor to the saints of God, as being members of Christ, the children and friends of God, and our intercessors. Wherefore in memory of them we ought to honor any relics of theirs in a fitting manner: principally their bodies, which were temples, and organs of the Holy Ghost dwelling and operating in them, and are destined to be likened to the body of Christ by the glory of the Resurrection. Hence God Himself fittingly honors such relics by working miracles at their presence.

Two comments from me-

  1. Note how Aquinas ends his answer: “God Himself fittingly honors such relics. . .”. What a great insight! God honors relics by working miracles (sometimes). Shouldn’t we honor relics if God Himself honors them?

  2. The use of the word “Worship” in the title of this question (if you follow the link) is not the worship (latria) due to God alone. It is instead the honor due to creatures (dulia) which does not stop in the creature but ends in God. I just wouldn’t want your 8th graders to think they should worship relics as we moderns sometimes understand that term in english. “Honor,” “revere,” or “venerate” might be more appropriate.

What do you think?
God Bless,

:yup: After discussing concert tickets and other memoralbilia, move the discussion to items that belonged to deceased family members that may have sentimental value. Thngs such as Grandma’s china or her wedding ring or Grandpa’s old fishing pole or his watch–these items are “second class relics” of a sort, and the sentimental value usually exceeds the material value because the items remind us of our loved ones.

Once they see that it’s natural to want to physical remembrances of our beloved family members, remind them that Christians are the family of God, and saints are beloved members of our family.

There are different classes of relics. (Some might sound a little odd at first, but remind your students of how some respond to items merely touched by celebrities.) Here are the classes of relics:
FIRST CLASS: bodies or portions of bodies of saints after their death;
SECOND CLASS: clothing or articles the saints used in life that touched their persons.
THIRD CLASS: objects that have touched a first class relic.
FOURTH CLASS: are object that have touched a Second Class Relic.

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