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Expert Answer Forum

by Catherine Frakas 22 Jun 2002

Sacred Objects QUESTION from Alexander V. Enhaynes January 21, 1999 What are relics? How do ordinary objects become relics? Are there classes of relics?
ANSWER by John-Paul Ignatius on January 24, 1999 Dear Alexander:
A relic, as termed in the Catholic Church, is the physical remains or effects of saints, which are considered worthy of veneration.
They are worthy of veneration because they are representative of the saint who now lives with God in heaven.
The Council of Trent and many other documents of the Church affirm that relics, properly identified, are worthy of veneration. The Congregations for the Causes of Saints and for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments are in charge of regulating issues involving relics.
The first notion of relics in found in the Bible:
Matthew 14:36: and [sick people] besought him [Jesus] that they might only touch the fringe of his garment; and as many as touched it were made well. A similar story is told in Mark 5:30. Although these passage talk directly about being healed by the touch of a garment, since Jesus was still wearing them some might argue that the healing was directly from Jesus and had nothing to do with the garment. That idea is not supported in Scripture, but some might assert this.

A passage that is closer to the idea of a relic as we currently think of them is Acts 19:11-12: 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 diseases left them and the evil spirit came out of them. Here the garment was used apart from the physical presence of the body (Paul). This the garments that Paul wore became blessed in some mysterious way as to effect healings even when he was not around.

But in 2 Kings 13:21 we find relics in exactly the way we think of them today: And as a man was being buried, lo, a marauding band was seen and the man was cast into the grace of Elisha; and as soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood on his feet. Here we have the bones of a saint that effect miracles.

Thus we have two of the three categories of relics represented in Scripture: FIRST CLASS: bodies or portions of bodies of saints after their death;
SECOND CLASS: clothing or articles the saints used in life that touched their persons.
THIRD CLASS: are objects that have been touched to a first class relic. Thus an ordinary object of today can become a third class relic whenever it is touched to a first class relic.
Because of the sacred nature of relics they cannot be legally bought or sold. However, if you find a relic for sale somewhere, like an estate sale, one may buy it so that it is removed from the market.
The earliest record of relics outside of the Bible dates back to St. Polycarp in 156 AD.
The early Church Fathers taught that graces could be obtained through relics, but of course, we need to guard against magical thinking or superstition.
Relics are meant for public veneration (particular relics of a popular saint) and so private individuals should NOT be gathering relics for personal collections. If a person does have a relic, it should be made available for public veneration, such as placed on a prayer altar where the people can exhibit it to people to come to their house for say a rosary for example.
At St. Michael House, we have a First Class Relic of St. Therese (the Little Flower) and eventually hope to get a few other relics of the saints of our charism. These are kept in public view in our Prayer Chapel.
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