This commentary first appeared in June 2008 in The Northern Cross, the diocesan newspaper of Duluth, Minnesota.
Father Richard Kunst:
One of my favorite things in the world to do is travel to Rome. My passion for church and papal history makes Rome my proverbial candy store.
Anyone who has spent time in that beautiful city can attest to the beauty of the churches, but in the tours I have led to the Eternal City, I have found varying reactions to the relics on display in their sanctuaries. It seems that most of the churches have some sort of major relic on display, anything from the crib of Christ to the chains that held Peter in prison, to literally walls of saints’ body parts right before your eyes. To some this might seem macabre; to the church it is the age-old practice of venerating relics.
All cultures treat their dead with respect. For Christians, who believe that the body is the temple of the Holy Sprit, it only follows that great respect should be given to those who most clearly lived out the Gospels, those who most clearly lived in imitation of Christ.
Catholicism has rightly been referred to as the religion of “smells and bells,” which to my way of thinking is completely appropriate. God made us physical, tangible beings, so it is the physical, tangible world that very often speaks to us in a most eloquent way. Our religion is full of physical symbols, not the least important being that of relics.
There are three types of relics, three traditional classes. A first-class relic is the body of a saint or a part of a saint’s body. It could be a piece of bone, flesh or even a lock of hair. A second-class relic is an item that the saint wore or used in his or her lifetime. A third-class relic is a piece of cloth that was touched to the body of a saint. Very often you will see a second- or third-class relic in a holy card or in a medal pendant, while first-class relics are rightly more difficult to obtain and will need documentation to be considered authentic or used for public veneration.
Relics are not magical, nor are they tools of superstition. If they are used as such, they are quite literally being abused. Relics are only worth the faith they provoke. If someone wears a small piece of cloth of a saint in a pendant for good luck, then the relic is of no use or of value. If, on the other hand, a relic inspires the faith, then it is of great value and has served its purpose.
It may surprise you that venerating relics and the potential power of relics is also scriptural. In the Second Book of Kings, we see how the bones of the prophet Elisha bought a dead man to life: “They cast the dead man into the grave of Elisha, and everyone went off. But when the man came in contact with the bones of Elisha, he came back to life and rose to his feet” (2 Kings 13:21).
In the New Testament, too, we see the emergence of relics in the early church: “So extraordinary were the mighty deeds which God accomplished at the hands of Paul that when face cloths or aprons that touched his skin were applied to the sick, their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them” (Acts 19:11-12).
The role relics have played in the faith lives of both the Jewish people and Christians is clearly documented in the Bible itself.
In church history, there has also been an unfortunate side to the veneration of relics, or at least in the collecting of them. Many kings, queen and emperors tried to out-do one another in a competition to lay claim to the greatest relic. Very often this was done for economic gain, since the greater the relic, the better chance of attracting pilgrims; the more pilgrims, the more money into your local economy. Out of this came the widespread forgeries that were taking place not only of significant relics but also of small ones, since many of these simple-minded pilgrims would be suckered into buying a fabricated piece of the relic they just visited. Eventually, the church became much more careful in guarding against forgeries and now is very careful and precise when distributing true relics.
Something should also be said about the modern day “relic trade” on eBay and other online auction sites. The selling of relics has once again become big business because of these web sites. A simple search will reveal hundreds of relics that are available. It is against church teaching to buy or sell relics. Usually sellers find a loophole in stating the reliquary is what is for sale, and that the relic comes free with the reliquary. There are also many forgeries out there; there is no such thing as a relic of any class of St. Michael the Archangel.
Either way, the selling of relics has become a very unfortunate situation. They are to be venerated, not used for making a profit. If you happen to have relics and you don’t know what to do with them, call your local priest or the diocese. Do not sell them.