One of the least understood practices of the Catholic Church is the honouring of the relics of saints. To some outside the Church the use of relics seems morbid and unnecessary. A good many of those who speak against the Catholic Church consider prayer to the saints in general and the use of relics in particular as superstitious and idolatrous. If Jesus Christ is the one mediator between God and men, they ask, what need have we for saints to intercede for us? Even if we are to ask others to pray for us, what good is it to pray to those who are dead? And what possible purpose could be served by keeping a chip of their bones or a piece of their clothing?
To understand the place of relics in Catholic piety it is important first to grasp exactly why Catholics invoke the intercession of the saints. We can then see more clearly the part played by those things associated with the saints.
According to a former English usage, the word "pray" means, simply, to ask. When Catholics pray to the saints who have gone before them into Heaven they are asking those saints to pray for them. The most common rejoinder is: "why not go straight to God?" The answer is obvious enough: we do. But we also ask others to go straight to God on our behalf, and for them in turn to ask others to do so. In fact, it is not just Catholics who ask for othersí prayerful intercession. All Christian groups do the same whenever they pray together. In doing so they are simply obeying Christís promise: "where two or more are gathered in my name there am I in the midst of them" (Matt. 18:19).
St. Paul prayed for his disciples and constantly asked them to pray for him. No one would suggest that the Apostle sought to bypass Christ, whom he himself called the one mediator before God and men (1 Tim 2:5). Rather, it was because Paul knew how effective prayer to Christ was that he exhorted others to pray with him and with the fellow members of the body of Christ, the Church. "You are the body of Christ and individually members of it. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together." (1 Cor. 12:27-28). St. James wrote in his epistle "pray for one another, that you may be healed, [for] the prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects" (James 5:16).
All Christians pray for others and ask others to pray for them. This is why Catholics pray to the saints in Heaven. It may be objected that the saints we Catholics pray to are no help to us because they are dead and have no knowledge of what is going on here on earth. Yet we know that "there will be more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance" (Luke 15:7). How can there be rejoicing in Heaven about something of which they are in complete ignorance?
Praying to the saints who have died is founded on the truth that those saints remain in communion with Christ, and with us, even after death. The letter to the Hebrews tells us of some of the just men of the Old Testament who are "a cloud of witnesses" urging us on as we look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (cf. Heb. 12:1-2). Those who have gone before us in faith are united to Christ just as we are - by the bond of charity. While that bond remains nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, neither life nor death (cf. Rom. 8:38).
If the communion of saints Ė that communion of grace and charity which incorporates us to Christ - leads us to pray for one another, it follows that we also should love and honour those good things which our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ honour. This is precisely why we bury those who have died, and why we honour their memory.
In the Gospels we can see the foundation of the practice of honouring the mortal remains of those holy ones who have died for Christ. After John the Baptist had been beheaded his disciples came and took away his body and buried it, laying it in a tomb (cf. Matt. 14:12; Mark 6:29). Although we do not know where Johnís disciples buried his body, in the fourth century the tomb of the Precursor was venerated near Samaria. St. Augustine explained something of this devotion to the remains of the saints in his masterly work, the City of God:
If a fatherís coat or ring, or anything else of that kind, is so much more cherished by his children, as love for oneís parents is greater, in no way are the bodies themselves to be despised, which are much more intimately and closely united to us than any garment; for they belong to manís very nature.
The point Augustine makes is an important one. We do show reverence towards the things of those who have died, especially those whom we have loved more. One way we do this is by the corporal work of mercy of burying the dead. As St. Thomas Aquinas points out in his Summa Theologiae, burial does not profit a dead man as though his body could be capable of perception after death. Nevertheless, it does concern the deceased what is done with his body: both that he may live in the memory of those whose respect he forfeits if he remains without burial, and as regards a manís fondness for his own body while he was yet living, a fondness which kindly persons should imitate after his death.
In considering relics we would do very well to look at how our Lordís body was treated by the most fervent of Christís disciples immediately after the crucifixion. After our Lord was buried the women went bravely to visit the well-guarded tomb in order to anoint his body (Matt. 28:1). Their devotion was rewarded when they were the first to hear the greatest news in history: "You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here" (Mark 16:6).
The veneration of the dead body of the Lord is not the only instance in Scripture where God gives his blessing to such devotion. In the Old Testament we find an especially striking example of how God used the relics of a just man as the occasion for a miracle: contact with the bones of Elisha brought a man back from the dead: "So Elisha 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 Elisha; and as soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood on his feet." (2 Kings 13:20-21).
In the Gospel of Matthew we learn that when the people of Gennesaret recognised Jesus, "they sent round to all that region and brought to him all that were sick, and besought him that they might only touch the fringe of his garment; and as many as touched it were made well" (Matt. 14:34-36). One account of such a healing especially stands out. The evangelists tell us of a woman who had suffered from a hemorrhage for twelve years. In spite of the crowd pressing upon Jesus he felt power pass out of him when the poor woman, in faith, reached out from behind him to touch his garment. She was instantly healed. (Luke 8:41-48).
As Christ foretold, his disciples would work these and greater miracles still. The sick were healed when Peterís shadow passed over them (Acts 5:15-16). "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 the diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them" (Acts 19:11-12). Catholics will readily identify these as clear examples of the power given through veneration of the relics of saints.
The veneration of such relics did not cease when the last word of the Bible was written. The Christian burial grounds in Rome known as the catacombs bear witness to this honour paid to the faithful departed. From the earliest times the faithful prayed at the tombs of the martyrs, those Christians who bore witness to faith in Christ even to the shedding of their blood. If it is a virtuous thing to pay oneís last respects to someone who has died, it cannot be less virtuous to continue to pay respect to those who have died for Christ, to seek to imitate their virtue, to ask them to pray to their Lord and Master on our behalf. God encourages such devotion by working miracles through the veneration of relics.
Such miracles still occur today. Indeed, the very sign the Church seeks as evidence that one declared venerable should be beatified, or later canonised, is the indisputable evidence of a miracle through the saintís intercession. Such miracles are often accompanied by the reverent use of a relic of the person whose canonisation cause is being investigated.
Whether it is through Elishaís bones, or Peterís shadow, Paulís apron, Christís garments, a splinter from the cross or the relics of a modern day saint, God uses material objects associated with holy people to bring blessings upon the faithful. Relics are not magic. They are not lucky charms or idols. They are the means by which God at times shows his power to increase our faith. And if we find the misuse of relics off-putting, such as when towns have fought over the body of a saint, even to the point of destroying that body, isnít it because they are not showing the reverence due to the body of the just ones who have died?
It sometimes happens that God gives us a special sign of the sanctity of someone who has died by preserving his body, at least for a time, from suffering mortal corruption. There are such "incorruptibles" today, and their bodies can still be seen, oftentimes looking as though they were not dead but only asleep. The body of St. Bernadette of Souibirous lies in a glass case in Nevers, in central France. Her remains have not been treated or preserved by any human means, and yet she lies there, without any visible signs of decay, although she died in 1879. St. John Vianneyís incorrupt body lies in Ars, north of Lyons, some 140 years after he died. Human science can offer no explanation.
The body is at the service of the soul and it is this truth which lies at the heart of the teaching of the Catholic Church about relics and reverence for the human body. Whether she is preaching about the intrinsic evil of abortion and contraception, or teaching us that the sacraments are sensible signs of invisible grace, the Church expresses her love and honour for the body. In fact, Christianity itself is founded upon the truth that God, the Son, Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, became incarnate in order to redeem us through his passion, death and resurrection. The Church has always had a healthy respect for the human body, for it is while we are in our bodies that we gain or forfeit our salvation. Our bodies are allies in virtue or vice, and it is fitting that the bodies of the just should share in the rewards which belong to those who have offered their lives to God, and that the bodies of the damned should partake of the punishment which they have deserved.
The dogma of the resurrection of the body on the last day underlines the Churchís love and respect for the human body. The veneration of the relics of the saints is a natural overflowing of this truth because it reminds us that the glory of the soul will overflow into the body. This is precisely what happens when a miracle is worked through the use of a saintís relics. Probably the most effective recognition of the glory and honour due to the relics of the saints can be found in the dogma that at the close of her life on earth Mary, the Mother of God, was assumed into Heaven, not just her soul but her body as well. This is precisely why no Catholic has ever claimed to have a relic from the body of Our Lady.
Although the devotion is often misunderstood and consequently misrepresented, the practice of honouring the relics of the saints is one with good foundation in Scripture and tradition. It reminds us of the natural truth that the soul is the form of the body and that their union is natural. And it reinforces the Christian belief that it is the whole man Ė body and soul - which shares in the glory to be given by Christ after the resurrection.
Anthony English is a student at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.
This article posted July 2000. It was published in Universitas, Number 6 (2000).
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