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WHY DO WE VENERATE RELICS?
Relics include the physical remains of a saint (or of a person who is considered holy but not yet officially canonized) as well as other objects that have been "sanctified" by being touched to his body.
These relics are divided into two classes. First class or real relics include the physical body parts, clothing and instruments connected with a martyr's imprisonment, torture and execution. Second class or representative relics are those, which the faithful have touched to the physical body parts or grave of the saint.
The use of relics has some, although limited, basis in sacred Scripture. In 2 Kings 2:9-14, the prophet Elisha picked up the mantle of Elijah after Elijah had been taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. With is, Elisha struck the water of the Jordan, which then parted so that he could cross. In another passage (13:20-21), some people hurriedly bury a dead man in the grave of Elisha, "but when the man came in contact with the bones of Elisha, he came back to life and rose to his feet." In the Acts of the Apostles we read, "Meanwhile, God worked extraordinary miracles at the hands of Paul. When handkerchiefs or cloths which had touched his skin were applied to the sick, their diseases were cured and evil spirits departed from them" (19:11-12). In these three passages, a reverence was given to the actual body or clothing of these very holy people who were indeed God's chosen instruments—Elijah, Elisha and St. Paul. Indeed, miracles were connected with these "relics"—not that some magical power existed in them, but just as God's work was done through the lives of these holy men, so did His work continue after their deaths. Likewise, just as people were drawn closer to God through the lives of these holy men, so did they (even if through their remains) inspire others to draw closer even after their deaths. This perspective provides the Church's understanding of relics.
The veneration of relics of the saints is found in the early history of the Church. A letter written by the faithful of the Church in Smyrna in the year 156 provides an account of the death of St. Polycarp, their bishop, who was burned at the stake. The letter reads, "We took up the bones, which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place, where the Lord will permit us to gather ourselves together as we are able, in gladness and joy, and celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom." Essentially, the relics—the bones and other remains of St. Polycarp—were buried and the tomb itself was the "reliquary." Other accounts attest that the faithful visited the burial places of the saints and miracles occurred. Moreover, at this time we see the development of "feast days" marking the death of the saint, the celebration of Mass at the burial place and a veneration of the remains.
After the legalization of the Church in 312, the tombs of saints were opened and the actual relics were venerated by the faithful. A bone or other bodily part was placed in a reliquary—a box, locket and later a glass case—for veneration.