Catholics Venerate Relics: Here is Why (Part 1)

11-12-2017Liturgy CornerMary Rezac

While we are one body in Christ, if you happen to be a Catholic saint, the many parts of your own body might be spread out all over the world. Take, for example, St. Catherine of Siena. A young and renowned third-order Dominican during the Middle Ages, she led an intense life of prayer and penance and is said to have single-handedly ended the Avignon exile of the successors of Peter in the 14th century.

When she died in Rome, her hometown of Siena, Italy, wanted her body. Realizing they would probably get caught if they took her whole corpse, the Siena thieves decided that it would be safer if they just took her head. When they were stopped on their way out by guards outside of Rome, they said a quick prayer, asking for St. Catherine of Siena's intercession. The guards opened the bag and did not find the dead head of St. Catherine, but a bag full of rose petals. Once the thieves were back in Siena, Catherine's head re-materialized, one of the many miracles attributed to the saint. The head of St. Catherine of Siena was placed in a reliquary in the Basilica of St. Dominic in Siena, where it can still be venerated today, along with her thumb. Her body remains in Rome, her foot is venerated in Venice.

From the Shroud of Turin, or the finger of St. Thomas, to the miraculous blood of St. Januarius, or the brain of St. John Bosco, the Catholic Church keeps and venerates many curious but nevertheless holy artifacts, known as relics, from Jesus and the saints. To the outsider, the tradition of venerating relics (particularly of the corporeal persuasion) may seem like an outlandishly morbid practice. But the roots of the tradition pre-date Jesus, and the practice is based in Scripture and centuries of Church teaching. While it's one of the most fascinating traditions of the Church, it can also be one of the most misunderstood. Father Carlos Martins, CC, is a Custos Reliquiarum, which is an ecclesiastically appointed Curate of Relics with the authority to issue relics. He is a member of Companions of the Cross, and the head of Treasures of the Church, a ministry that aims to give people an experience of the living God through an encounter with the relics of his saints in the form of an exposition. The ministry brings expositions of various relics throughout North America by invitation. In the following interview with CNA, Fr. Martins answers questions and dispels some common misunderstandings about the tradition ofrelics.

First of all, what is a relic?

Relics are physical objects that have a direct association with the saints or with Our Lord. They are usually broken down into three classes: First class relics are the body or fragments of the body of a saint, such as pieces of bone or flesh. Second class relics are something that a saint personally owned, such as a shirt or book (or fragments of those items). Third class relics are those items that a saint touched or that have been touched to a first, second, or another third class relic of a saint. The word relic means "a fragment" or "remnant of a thing that once was but now is no longer." Thus, we find in antique shops "Civil War relics" or "Relics of the French Revolution." Obviously, we are not talking aboutthese kinds of relics but rather sacred relics.

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