The catechism tells us “Besides sacramental liturgy and sacramentals, catechesis must take into account the forms of piety and popular devotions among the faithful. The religious sense of the Christian people has always found expression in various forms of piety surrounding the Church’s sacramental life, such as the veneration of relics, visits to sanctuaries, pilgrimages, processions, the stations of the cross, religious dances, the rosary, medals, etc.” (CCC1674)
The veneration of the relics of the saints can be difficult to understand for those who have not lived and experienced this practice. A relic is simply an item associated with a particular person, so can include things like clothes they wore, or items they owned like a book, a rosary, a crucifix etc. In this context, I think people can perhaps relate. Who of us does not own and cherish things that have belonged to loved ones who have died, and understand in some way the presence of these objects provides a connection to that person? Have you perhaps held such a possession near to you, kissed it, smelled it? If so, you are venerating, or honoring the person you love. The Church teaches veneration of the relics of the saints can enrich Christian life and allow us to advance in the knowledge of the mystery of Christ (CCC1676, CCC1679). Our love for one another in the body of Christ does not end with death but is rather perfected by it.
Considered to be an even more important relic though would be part of the physical remains of a saint, such as a bone, hair, etc. Modern sensibilities have a difficult time relating to the idea these are also items to be cherished, and in the Catholic view, venerated (or honored). But in the course of history, Christian people have done exactly that. Think of how his followers honored the body of Christ, wrapping it in a linen cloth and anointing it with spices (John 19:40). St. Polycarp was ordained by the apostle John. The details of his martyrdom were recorded by the early Christians, and we see how they venerated his remains:
“The centurion then, seeing the strife excited by the Jews, placed the body in the midst of the fire, and consumed it. Accordingly, we afterwards took up his bones, as being more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, whither, being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps.”
These earliest of Christians were looking forward to coming together where the remains of St. Polycarp were enshrined and celebrating the anniversary of his martyrdom. Their experience exemplifies the position of the Church how this pious practice can enrich Christian life and allow us to advance in the knowledge of Christ. It’s a sentiment echoed by St. Jerome in a quite caustic letter written in the early fifth century when a priest named Vigilantius was teaching against the veneration of relics and that the bodies of the dead were “unclean.”
“We, it is true, refuse to worship or adore, I say not the relics of the martyrs, but even the sun and moon, the angels and archangels, the Cherubim and Seraphim and every name that is named, not only in this world but also in that which is to come. Ephesians 1:21. For we may not serve the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Romans 1:25. Still we honour the relics of the martyrs, that we may adore Him whose martyrs they are. We honour the servants that their honour may be reflected upon their Lord who Himself says:— he that receives you receives me. Matthew 10:40. I ask Vigilantius, Are the relics of Peter and of Paul unclean? Was the body of Moses unclean, of which we are told (according to the correct Hebrew text) that it was buried by the Lord Himself? Deuteronomy 34:6 And do we, every time that we enter the basilicas of apostles and prophets and martyrs, pay homage to the shrines of idols? Are the tapers which burn before their tombs only the tokens of idolatry?”
And this Catholic Answers article cites the anti-Catholic historian Adolph Harnack who writes, “No Church doctor of repute restricted it. All of them rather, even the Cappadocians, countenanced it. The numerous miracles which were wrought by bones and relics seemed to confirm their worship. 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).
While Harnack obviously does not approve of the practice, he confirms two important points. The first is that no church doctor of repute restricted it, and as we see in the case of St. Jerome he adamantly supported the practice, as well as many others. And while St. Jerome (and the Church) is clear the relics are not to be worshipped as Harnack charges, he mentions that the “numerous miracles which were wrought by the bones and relics” were a factor in why the practice was in place. We see in Sacred Scripture where God has performed many miracles using physical matter to include relics, and that experience by the faithful has continued down through the centuries.
We read for example in 2 Kings 13:20-21 “So Eli′sha 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 Eli′sha; and as soon as the man touched the bones of Eli′sha, he revived, and stood on his feet.” That’s a pretty powerful miracle that occurred from coming into contact with the relics of a saint.
In 2 Kings 2:8, we read “Then Eli′jah took his mantle, and rolled it up, and struck the water, and the water was parted to the one side and to the other, till the two of them could go over on dry ground.” He and his son Elisha talk, and then Elijah is swept into heaven in a chariot of fire and horses. Elisha take the mantle of Elijah, roles it up, strikes the water, and once again the waters of the river Jordan part so he can cross over on dry land. God worked a miracle through Elijah’s mantle.
In the New Testament, we see simply by touching the cloak of Jesus, a woman is immediately healed (Matthew 9:20-22). In the book of Acts we read “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). The Catholic understanding of God working through the relics of holy people is clearly based in Scripture, and over the centuries people have quite often attested to the miracles they have witnessed.
The evangelical site gotquestions.org has this objection to the Catholic understanding of relics.
One of the dangers inherent in the veneration of relics is the temptation to commit idolatry. This is exactly what happened in ancient Israel. God had told Moses to make a bronze serpent in order to save the Hebrews from a plague of poisonous snakes (Numbers 21:8–9). That bronze serpent was kept by the Israelites as a reminder of God’s goodness and salvation; however, by the time of King Hezekiah, the “relic” had become an object of worship. Hezekiah’s reforms included breaking “into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan)” (2 Kings 18:4). Physical aids to faith, if not commanded by God, are unnecessary and inevitably lead to superstition and idolatry.
I’m not quite what to make of this logic actually. Physical aids to faith, even if commanded by God can lead to superstition and idolatry. Isn’t that what the example of the bronze serpent shows us? God clearly told Moses to make the snake for the good purpose of healing the people, and it was used for this good purpose. Just because the people fell into superstition and idolatry of the snake doesn’t change the fact it was commanded by God for a good purpose. Anything can be misused, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good thing with a good purpose or that it shouldn’t be embraced. The free will God gives to us is a perfect example of a very good thing we should embrace but most certainly can be abused. If we were to abandon all good gifts of God that could possibly fall into abuse, what would we have left? Rather, we should never abandon a good gift of God because it can fall into abuse. But we should always be on guard against misuse, which is why the catechism is clear that “Pastoral discernment is needed to sustain and support popular piety and, if necessary, to purify and correct the religious sense which underlies these devotions.” (CCC1676)
The site continues with this objection:
“There is absolutely no power in Christian relics. Even if the entire cross of Jesus were discovered intact, it would have no spiritual value. Relics do not, in any manner whatsoever, enable us to get closer to God. The humerus of a saint can do nothing for your spirit. Relics should not be prayed to, worshiped, or in any way be used as a means to better connect with God. Using relics in such a talismanic way is blatant idolatry (Exodus 20:3; Isaiah 42:8). An elaborate church filled with relics is no more valid a place for worship than a simple tent in a jungle. We worship the Lord in spirit and truth (John 4:24), not by idols, icons, or relics, whether genuine or fake.”
Again, I don’t quite know what to make of this objection. Catholics would wholeheartedly agree there is no power in the relic itself. Paul’s handkerchiefs possessed no power, and to believe they did would indeed be idolatry, as would it be to pray to or worship his handkerchiefs. But does that truth negate the fact that God chose to work miracles through them? Or through the relics of other saints as Christians have attested to over the centuries? And if you witness or take on good faith God did choose to use a relic as the means to show HIS power, how could that not enable you to draw closer to God? Are we really to believe the people who witnessed the healing of those who touched Paul’s handkerchiefs or miracles performed by God through other relics do not have an associated spiritual awakening, healing, or encounter with the risen Christ?
Regarding the idea that somehow the use of physical matter conflicts with worshipping in “spirit and truth,” I would refer you to this article by Catholic Answers that does a very good job of addressing that misconception and why worshipping “in spirit,” in no way means an absence of the physical.
One last comment about relics – we are sometimes asked how we can “know” a certain relic is authentic. The local bishop has the responsibility to certify the authenticity of a relic, and only those relics that have been certified as authentic can be exposed for veneration by the faithful. Church law also forbids the sale of relics. While there was less rigor around this process in the early church and this process cannot be guaranteed to always be without error, the Church is diligent in the safeguard of relics. The faithful can have assurance in this, and in the unlikely situation where an error may have occurred we should also recognize that God always knows the intent of our hearts and will bless our actions accordingly. Glory to God in his saints!