What are Relics?
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.
With regard to third class relics, the touch does not have to be a direct touch to the relic itself. Merely touching the container that houses the relic is sufficient to bring about that transformation and effect a new relic.
Relics in the Word of God
Scripture teaches that God acts through relics, especially in terms of healing. In fact, when surveying what Scripture has to say about sacred relics, one is left with the idea that healing is what relics “do.”
- When the corpse of a man was touched to the bones of the prophet Elisha the man came back to life and rose to his feet (2 Kings 13:20-21). In fact, we are told that after his death, Elisha’s bones prophesied (Sirach 48:13-14).
- A woman was healed of her hemorrhage simply by touching the hem of Jesus’ cloak (Matthew 9:20-22); and Mark informs us that as many as touched it were healed (Mark 6:56).
- The signs and wonders worked by the Apostles were so great that people would line the streets with the sick so that when Peter walked by at least his shadow might ‘touch’ them (Acts 5:12-15). In other words, even Peter’s shadow was healing.
- When handkerchiefs or aprons that had been touched to Paul were applied to the sick, the people were healed and evil spirits were driven out of them (Acts 19:11-12).
In each of these instances God has brought about a healing using a material object. The vehicle for the healing was the touching of that object. It is very important to note, however, that the cause of the healing is God; the relics are a means through which He acts. In other words, relics are not magic. They do not contain a power that is their own; a power separate from God. Any good that comes about through a relic is God’s doing. But the fact that God chooses to use the relics of saints to work healing and miracles tells us that He wants to draw our attention to the saints as “models and intercessors” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 828). It also reveals His intention to use relics to foreshadow the general resurrection of mankind: that one day God’s faithful children, the members of His Body, will reign with him in glory, and through whom, even now on earth, He works mightily:
“Christ shall come to be glorified in his Saints and to be admired in all them that believe (because our testimony among you was believed) in that day. Wherefore also we pray always for you, that our God would count you worthy of this calling, and fulfill all the good pleasure of his goodness, and the work of faith with power.” (2 Thes 1:10-11)