There have been reports in the news lately of relics arriving on American soil.
- On April 3, a relic of Blessed Carlos Acutis, the first millennium to be beatified, arrived in New York. The relic is a fragment of the pericardium of Acutis, the tissue that surrounds and protects the heart, and was transported from Italy by Archbishop Domenico Sorrentino of Assisi. He has since been venerated in several dioceses and will remain in the United States throughout the American Bishops’ Multi-Year National Eucharistic Revival, for which Blessed Carlos has been appointed intercessor. Acutis, a young computer geek who had a deep devotion to the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, created a website that 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 to the Catholic world, for the first time relics of Saint Bernadette de Soubiroux, including a rib, arrived in the United States from France. Bernadette was only fourteen in 1858, when Our Lady appeared to her eighteen times in the grotto of 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 dedicated to either Saint Bernadette or Our Lady of Lourdes.
For Catholics, it is easy to grant legitimacy to relics and welcome the opportunity to pray near the earthly remains of a saint. For Protestants and non-believers, however, the idea of praying with a body part of a deceased saint can be a stumbling block. On social media and in person, I’ve seen the backlash from non-believers recently. An explanation is in order!
What exactly is a relic?
There are three different types of relics:
- First Class Relics are elements directly associated with events in the life of Christ (the manger, the cross, etc.), or the physical remains of a saint (a bone, a hair, a skull, a limb, etc.)
- A Second Class Relic is an item that was worn by a saint (like a shirt or glove), or that the saint owned or used frequently (like a crucifix or a book).
- A Third Class Relic is an item 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 that was laid over Jesus’ head in the tomb. This cloth is referenced in John 20:6-7, which describes the strips left after Jesus’ resurrection:
And so Simon Peter came also, following him, and entered into the sepulchre; and he saw the linen strips laying there, and the washcloth that had been on his head, not lying with the linen strips, but rolled up in a separate place.
Pieces of the True Cross are among the most prized first-class relics. Many churches claimed to have a piece of it, so many that John Calvin once noticed there were enough pieces of the True Cross to build a ship. However, Calvin’s claim was refuted in an 1870 study which found that all known pieces of the cross, if put together, would weigh less than 1.7 kg – far less than the cross would have weighed. .
Is praying with a relic just a Catholic superstition?
Many Protestants oppose the idea of venerating the relics of saints. “Isn’t that just a little superstition?” they ask. Actually no.
First, let’s clarify what a relic is do not: The Church does not attribute any “magical power” to relics. There is nothing in the relic itself – be it a bone of the apostle Peter, a piece of clothing or the water from Lourdes – that has any healing capacity. Only God can heal. However, Catholics believe that relics can be of help, that God can work through a relic to heal the sick or perform a miracle. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit can affect the physical body, and God can perform miracles through the bodies of deceased saints.
A second important point is that Catholics in no way “venerate” relics.
Saint Jerome wrote: “We do not adore, we do not adore, lest we prostrate ourselves before the creature rather than before the creator, but we venerate the relics of the martyrs the better to adore him whose martyrs they are. 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. From the Old Testament, it was demonstrated that the relics of the deceased possessed a power that certainly comes from God.
One of the first verses that shows the effectiveness of relics is found in the Old Testament book of the Second Kings (2 Kings 13:20-21). The prophet Elisha was dead and his body had been buried. In the spring of the year, an invading band of Moabites were burying a man of their tribe when they came across the tomb of Elisha. The Moabites threw the deceased into the tomb, on 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 (Matthew 9:20-22), the bleeding woman was healed by simply touching the hem of Christ’s garment.
Also in the New Testament, Acts 19:11-12 tells the story of Paul’s handkerchiefs, which were imbued by God with healing power:
And God worked extraordinary miracles through the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were taken from his body to the sick, and diseases left them and evil spirits came out of them.
Interestingly, the late and famous evangelical preacher Billy Graham adopted Paul’s custom – sending his followers “prayer handkerchiefs” that he had prayed over.
So if you reject the idea of using relics in Christian prayer, then you should also reject all of these examples from Scripture. In fact, you should be wondering why in the world Mary Magdalene and the women would ever seek to anoint the Body of Christ after his death by crucifixion. Yet you would be wrong to simply dismiss 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 reveals several relics, real or supposed, that are offered for sale, sometimes for hundreds of dollars. The Catholic Church, however, strictly prohibits 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 importance and other relics honored with great veneration by the people cannot be validly alienated in any way or permanently transferred without the authorization of the Apostolic See.”
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