Why Do Catholics Believe
That Relics Are Holy? *
After the prophet Elisha died, he was buried in a cave. Sometime later, the body of another dead man had to be cast into the same cave hastily so those burying him could avoid a band of marauders. Then, "when the man came in contact with bones of Elisha, he came back to life and rose to his feet" (2 Kgs 13:20-21).
This story from 2 Kings provides a biblical example of a "relic," which is an object connected with our Lord or a saint. Throughout biblical and Church history, relics have been venerated and have often demonstrated a capacity to convey the power of God through miracles, especially miracles of healing.
The Church divides relics into three classes. A first-class relic is a part of a saint's body, as in the case of Elisha's bones. A second-class relic is something a saint used during his life on earth, such as clothing. The Bible also records an instance of such a relic and its power: Elijah's mantle, which parted the Jordan River after the prophet had gone to heaven: "Wielding the mantle which had fallen from Elijah, (Elisha) stuck the water... When Elisha struck the water it divided and he crossed over" (2 Kgs 2:14).
Third-class relics are objects that have been touched to a first-class relic. The Bible notes an example of this kind of relic, too, and the miracles it may work: "So extraordinary were the mighty deeds God accomplished at the hands of Paul hat 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" (Act 19:11-12).
We must keep in mind that the miraculous power conveyed through relics is not some kind of magic. It is simply God's power acting through material means, analogous to the way he acts through the matter of sacraments and sacramentals--or, for that matter, the way he sometimes works miracles through the touch of a saint's hands long before the saint's death (see Why Do Catholics Believe that Miracles are so Special?).
Why would a saint's relics be venerated? We might just as well ask why a woman would carry a lock of her beloved's hair in a locket around her neck. The affection and honor shown a relic overflow from the affection and honor shown to the saints themselves, who are dear to us as exemplars of God's grace, love, and holiness.
Other related scriptures: Ps 91:15; 112:1-9; Mt 10:8: Mk 16:17-18; Acts 2:43; 3:1-13; 5:12-16; 8:1-8; 9:32-42; 14:3, 8-15; 16:18: 20:9-11; 28:8-10; 1 Cor 12:28.
Catechism of the Catholic Church: 828; 1674.
*Quoted from The New Catholic Answer Bible. Wichita, Kansas, Fireside Catholic Publishing, 2005. www.firesidecatholic.com #N-3
Additional insights at: www.catholic.com
Comments: I recall the excitement at the Sacramento Cathedral when the relics of St. Therese of Lisieux were on display there a few years ago. Thousands stood in line to pass near the relics. A few years later my wife, Barbara, and I visited Lisieux on a pilgrimage to be close to St. Therese once again. I also recall going on the Scavi tour at St. Peter's in Rome where we descended below the main altar to view the place where St. Peter's remains lie. On another occasion we visited Fatima where Blessed Francisco, Blessed Jacinta, and Sister Lucia are buried. Whenever we were close to the relics of these holy men and women, we felt a special connection and a blessing. Honoring their relics also is a witness to our belief that they are wonderful models of how we should live our lives to follow them on our journey back to Our Father. Soon the relics of St. John Bosco will be coming to many churches in the United States. I look forward to being near the relics of a great priest who dedicated his life to helping the boys of Turin and who had become victims of the Industrial Revolution as well as poor and abandoned youth throughout the world.