Why do Catholics venerate relics? This question came to mind when the heart relic of Saint Padre Pio was put on display last October in the Philippines.
The saint’s relic was put on public display for veneration from Oct. 6 to Oct. 26 in churches in Davao, Lipa, Cebu and Manila.
VENERATION VS IDOLATRY
The key word here is “venerate.” For others, the Catholic relationship with relics is tantamount to “idolatry.” Idolatry is the worship of idols.
That is a serious accusation. And the basis of that accusation is the first of the Ten Commandments, which states: “I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt not have any strange gods before Me.”
This first commandment focuses on telling the faithful to worship one deity.
The key word to understand here is the word “worship”. The faithful worship God. Worship and venerate are two entirely different things.
When the faithful worship God, they pray to Him. When they venerate a relic, they show their respect for the saint. In short, they honor the saint and the saint’s deeds and memory.
Venerating a saint means the faithful remembers a saint’s holiness, which reflects a saint’s relationship with God. Honoring a saint’s holiness is acknowledging God’s role in a saint’s life.
In short, venerating a relic is not worship.
With that out of the way, the next question now is “What is a relic?”
Put simply, a relic can be a part of saint’s or would-be saint’s mortal remains or belongings.
The Padre Pio Foundation has a more detailed explanation: “In the Catholic Church, relics are physical objects associated with a saint or candidate for sainthood – part of the person’s body or something with which he or she was in contact. Relics are not worshiped, but treated with religious respect. Touching relics or praying in the presence of them helps a faithful individual focus on the saint’s life and virtues so that through the saint’s prayer or intercession before God, the individual will be drawn closer to God.”
According to the Catholic Church’s document “Relics in the Church: Authenticity and Preservation” issued by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in 2017, there are three types of relics.
The Congregation of Saints is the Catholic Church’s saint-making office.
The first type is called “significant relics” or first-class relics. These are the bodies of the saints or notable parts of a saint’s remains. The ashes of a cremated saint are also considered to be significant relics.
The second type is known as “non-significant relics” or second-class relics. These are “little fragments of the body of the Blesseds and of the Saints as well as objects that have come in direct contact with their person.” Whenever possible, these items are to be preserved in sealed cases.
The Catholic Church has a special instruction for this type of relic. This should be “preserved and honored in a religious spirit, avoiding every type of superstition and illicit trade.”
In short, relics are not amulets. Nor can they be sold.
There is a special Church rule for the body or mortal remains of a person being considered for beatification or canonization. This rule is for third-class relics.
“Until they are elevated to the honors of the altars through beatification or canonization, their mortal remains may not enjoy any public cult nor those privileges which are reserved only to the body of someone who has been beatified or canonized,” the rule said.
The Catholic Church’s saint-making office also issued additional instructions on relics for would-be saints and saints.
“The instructions explicitly rule out selling the hair strands, hands, teeth and other body parts of saints that often fetch high prices in online auctions,” the Associated Press reported. “They also prohibit the use of relics in sacrilegious rituals and warn that the church may have to obtain consent from surviving family members before unearthing the remains of candidates for sainthood.”
The revised instructions lay out in detail how a body is to be unearthed, saying it must be covered with a “decorous” cloth while a relic is being taken or authenticated, and then re-buried in clothes of similar style.
They also make clear that the bishops involved must agree in writing to any transfer of remains and call for absolute secrecy when a body is unearthed and a relic taken for eventual veneration.
The document repeats Church teaching that relics from candidates for sainthood can only be venerated publicly once they have been beatified, the first step to possible sainthood, and not before.
The guidance explicitly allows for cremated remains to be used as relics.
For most of its 2,000-year history, the Catholic Church only permitted burial, arguing that it best expressed the Christian hope for resurrection. But in 1963, the Vatican explicitly allowed cremation as long as it didn’t suggest a denial of faith about resurrection.
Aside from the heart relic of Padre Pio that was put on display for veneration in the Philippines recently, other notable relics of the Catholic Church include the Shroud of Turin, which is said to be the burial cloth of Jesus Christ; the mummified head of Saint Catherine of Siena, and the finger of St. Thomas. (With AP report) G