What made Babe Ruth’s jersey worth $5.6 million?
Why do millions of people visit the graves of their relatives each year?
Why do people make pilgrimages to the Holy Land?
The simple answer is that it’s human nature to want to be close to greatness and near to those we love.
We feel honored to be in the presence of someone we respect highly, even if that person is no longer alive. When we are physically close to someone we consider great, or hold something that person used, we may even feel greatness is within reach for us.
The people Christians honor most are the saints. These heroic individuals lived lives of great holiness here on earth. They are our role models, teaching us how we can love the Lord more, serve him better, and give our hearts wholly to him. It’s natural for us to draw near to them by reading their words, asking them to pray for us, and paying respect to the things they have left behind.
A relic is something left behind. The word comes from the Latin reliquiae, which means “remains.” A sacred relic is an item directly associated with a holy person. These rare objects provide us with a means of physical and spiritual proximity to holiness. When properly used, relics can also bring us closer to Christ.
The Three Types of Sacred Relics
First Class Relics
First-class relics come from the body of a blessed or a saint. These may be bones, flesh, ashes, blood, hair, teeth, or even fingernails.
Relics like these are normally collected when the body is exhumed as part of the beatification process. In most cases the body has naturally decomposed and bone fragments can be gathered easily.
Tiny body fragments are called non-significant relics. Although they are sacred, they are considered too small for public veneration. A significant relic must be identifiable to the eye.
Second Class Relics
Second-class relics are items a saint used or touched: clothing, furniture, hairbrushes, writing utensils, glasses, books, and even vehicles. Even the instruments used to restrain or torture a martyr are considered second-class relics.
Third-class relics consist of anything that has been touched to a first-class or second-class relic.
According to Canon Law, “It is permitted to reverence through public veneration only those servants of God whom the authority of the Church has recorded in the list of the saints or the blessed.” (Title IV, Can. 1187)
Is it Biblical?
Relics are material objects, and thus hold no power of their own. We see in the Bible, however, that God frequently uses material objects as the instruments through which He acts, particularly with regard to healing.
A relic itself has no power to heal – only God in his power can do that. All good that comes about through relics is entirely God’s doing.
Why would God choose to use the relics of saints to work healing and miracles? Perhaps because he wants to draw our attention to the saints as “models and intercessors” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 828).
The Bones of Elisha
2 Kings 13:20-21
“Elisha died and was buried. Now Moabite raiders used to enter the country every spring. Once while some Israelites were burying a man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders; so they threw the man’s body into Elisha’s tomb. When the body touched Elisha’s bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet.”
The Cloak of Jesus
“Just then a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak. She said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.”
“Jesus turned and saw her. “Take heart, daughter,” he said, “your faith has healed you.” And the woman was healed at that moment.”
“God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.”
Relics in the Early Church
The practice of honoring relics of martyrs began in the very early years of Christianity. Many ancient documents attest to the practice.
Martyrdom of Polycarp, Chapter 18
“… we afterwards took up his bones, as being more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, whither, being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom”
Martyrdom of St. Ignatius of Antioch, Chapter 6
“For only the harder portions of his holy remains were left, which were conveyed to Antioch and wrapped in linen, as an inestimable treasure left to the holy Church by the grace which was in the martyr.”
St. Athanasius: Life of St. Anthony, Paragraph 92
“But each of those who received the sheepskin of the blessed Anthony and the garment worn by him guards it as a precious treasure. For even to look on them is as it were to behold Anthony; and he who is clothed in them seems with joy to bear his admonitions.”
St. Basil: Letter 197, paragraph 2
“…he took up the relics with all becoming reverence, and has aided the brethren in their preservation. These relics do you receive with a joy equivalent to the distress with which their custodians have parted with them and sent them to you.”
St. Jerome: Letter 46, Paragraph 8
“Everywhere we venerate the tombs of the martyrs; we apply their holy ashes to our eyes; we even touch them, if we may, with our lips.”
St. Augustine: City of God
“For even now miracles are wrought in the name of Christ, whether by His sacraments or by the prayers or relics of His saints…”
How Do We Know They’re Real?
Authenticity: Who Decides?
Every first-class relic of a Blessed or Saint must be certified as authentic. The need for this is obvious: the bones of one person look a lot like those of any other. In the middle ages, when aristocrats and churchmen competed to acquire relics, deceptions were common. Hence procedures were put in place to correct abuses and reduce the likelihood of fraud.
he Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the Vatican department that oversees the long process of determining if someone is worthy to be named a Blessed or Saint.
The detailed document Instruction “Relics in the Church: Authenticity and Preservation” outlines the procedure used to examine and distribute first-class relics today.
Certifying the Relics
An appointed Church official issues a certificate that accompanies each first-class relic that is distributed. This document includes:
- the name of the Church official certifying the item,
- the name of the Blessed or Saint to which the relic belongs,
- any distinctions bestowed upon the Blessed or Saint (such as martyr, doctor of the Church, virgin, or founder),
- the type of relic; and
- what the reliquary in which the relic is housed looks like.
The document is then signed, sealed, and dated.
The Seal of Authenticity
Each first-class relic is sealed in two ways:
- First, the relic is held in place inside the reliquary by red threads that cross over it.
- The threads are secured with a red wax seal that bears the insignia of the issuing authority.
If either the seal or the thread is broken, the validity of the authentification cannot be assured.
A reliquary is a container that holds a relic. It serves two purposes.
First, it protects the relic from damage or harm.
Second, because the relic is sealed within it, the reliquary acts as a guard against tampering.
In the Middle Ages many reliquaries were large and elaborate. The valuable materials used to decorate them reflected the great value placed on their contents. On the other end of the spectrum are simple paper reliquaries, which allow for easy transport and everyday veneration.
Why There are Relics in Altars
The primary altar in almost every Catholic church contains two authenticated relics, at least one of which is of a martyr. This practice has its roots in the earliest years of Christianity.
Less than a hundred years after Jesus died, Christians began to celebrate the Eucharist in the catacombs in Rome. These underground burial chambers just outside the city limits held the remains of many martyrs. It became common practice to use a martyr’s tomb as an altar.
Once Christianity became legal in 313 AD it was possible to build churches, and the remains of some martyrs were “translated” (moved) into church altars. This created an earthly parallel for the heavenly altar described in the book of Revelation:
“I saw under the altar the souls of all who had been martyred for the word of God and for being faithful in their testimony.” Revelation 6:9
In 787 AD the Second Council of Nicea decreed that all consecrated altars should contain at least one relic of a martyr. This stayed in effect until the Second Vatican Council of 1969, when the requirement was dropped.
The small cavity in an altar into which a relic is placed is called the sepulchrum (tomb).
How Mother Cabrini’s Relics Came to the Shrine
1933: The Initial Examination
After Mother Cabrini died in 1917 she was buried in West Park, NY, overlooking the Hudson River. This was one of her favorite places, and the home of the American novitiate and a large orphanage.
The official process to determine if she was a saint began in 1928, just more than a decade after her death.
In 1933 her mortal remains were exhumed by the Roman Commission in the presence of the Apostolic Delegate. At that time her body was found to have been subject to the normal process of decay.
Mother Cabrini’s remains were re-interred and carefully moved to the chapel of Mother Cabrini High School at 701 Fort Washington Avenue. They were placed in a sealed urn under the altar dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
“The final steps in preparation for the completion of the process involved transporting Cabrini’s body from West Park, New York, down to the High School. This was an event in which everyone who was associated with the school participated. A lighted candle illuminated every window in the building in anticipation of the arrival of Mother’s body. Vigil candles lined the main driveway entrance. The New York City police band escorted the coffin up Fort Washington Avenue… Bystanders crowded the streets in order to participate in this solemn yet joyful procession.”
A History of 701 Fort Washington Avenue by Sr. Barbara Staley, MSC
1938: The Certification of Recognition
As part of the beatification process, a team of experts must examine the mortal remains to ensure they truly belong to the right person. Thus in 1938 Mother Cabrini’s body had to be exhumed and examined again.
Anatomical experts and the Postulators of the Cause arrived from Rome to go through the detailed process of creating a “certification of recognition.” The examination was done quietly over several days in a secure room at Mother Cabrini High School.
“Officials from the Vatican swamped the Fort Washington building…The sisters who were present were given very firm warnings that they would be excommunicated from the Church if they took any of Cabrini’s remains. During this official Vatican study and observation, first class relics of the body were acquired and distributed.”
A History of 701 Fort Washington Avenue
by Sr. Barbara Staley, MSC
Once the examination was complete and deemed in order, Mother Cabrini’s remains were clothed in her religious habit and placed in a crystal coffin. A wax mask of her face and hands were placed over the relics to help pilgrims visualize her as she was on earth.
Before the casket was closed and sealed, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart and the girls from Cabrini High School were permitted to walk past it. Those who held rosaries were permitted to touch them to Mother Cabrini’s feet.
“The formalities completed, the heavy gold and glass was moved into place on top of the coffin – so heavy sixteen men were required to bring it into the school – and Monsignor Natucci personally sealed the coffin, which will never again be opened.” (New York Herald Tribune September 14, 1938)
1946-1959: Canonization and the Move to the Shrine
Francesca Xavier Cabrini was proclaimed a saint at 9:05 a.m. on July 7, 1946 by Pope Pius XII.
Francis Cardinal Spellman celebrated Mass in the chapel at Mother Cabrini High School in New York simultaneously with the pontifical high Mass in Rome.
According to The New York Times over 45,000 people passed through the chapel at Mother Cabrini High School on July 7, 1946 to venerate the relics of the new saint.
The ongoing flow of pilgrims to the chapel was welcome but made it difficult for the school to function normally. To accommodate visitors, the Missionary Sisters decided to build a separate Shrine to house Mother Cabrini’s remains. Construction began in 1957 and was completed in 1959.
Mother Cabrini’s remains continue to rest beneath the main altar at the Shrine today, welcoming people to learn from her example of a life of heroic virtue and to draw closer to God.
FAQ on Relics and Saints
Do Catholics Worship Saints?
Catholics honor or “venerate” saints, which is different than worshipping them.
Our word worship comes from the Old English word weorthscipe (worth-ship), which meant the condition of being worthy of honor, respect, or dignity. We see traces of this original, broad meaning in the British use of “Your Worship” to address their magistrates. No one in England was ever expected to worship a judge instead of God. When we read old manuscripts that speak of worshipping the saints, it’s important to recall that the word worship meant something different then.
Today worship has a narrower meaning, and we use it to refer to the type of honor and adoration due exclusively to God. To clarify the distinction, theologians use the Greek term latria to refer to the honor due to God alone.
There is a separate Greek term, dulia, for the honor due to the many people Scripture calls on us to honor. The Bible commands us to treat our parents, the elderly, those in authority, prophets, priests, and above all those who are holy with honor. In English we say we venerate these people, or hold them in high regard.
What About Praying to the Saints?
Catholics ask saints to pray for us, just as we’d ask a friend to pray on our behalf.
We can, of course, ask God directly. But Scripture is quite clear that we are also to pray for each other:
“Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” (James 5:16)
Similar passages include 1 Thessalonians 5:25, 2 Thessalonians 3:1, Colossians 4:3, Hebrews 13:18, Ephesians 6:18 and 1 Timothy 2:1. Since “the prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects” the saints – who are among the most righteous – are often powerful intercessors for us.
But Aren’t They Dead?
Some people object that the saints can’t pray for us because they are dead. However, our membership in the Body of Christ doesn’t stop when we die. If anything, those who have passed on are closer to God and more alive in Christ than we are on earth.
God “is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive” (Luke 20:38). We also know from the story of the Transfiguration that in some way those who have died are very much living. When Peter, James, and John went up the mountain with Jesus, they witnessed him speaking to the long-dead prophets Moses and Elijah.
When we ask those in heaven to pray for us we are merely applying the Scriptural teaching of asking others to pray for us to the entire body of Christ, in heaven and on earth.
How Can Saints Hear Us?
Here’s what we know:
- On earth “we see in a mirror dimly” but in heaven we will see God “face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
- After we go to heaven “we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as he is” (1 John 3:2)
- “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8)
Put together, these verses (along with others, like Matthew 5:8) imply that those in heaven see God fully, and thus see and know all that he loves. The Saints thus know us better than anyone on earth, because they see God face to face and know his deep love for us.
Exactly how the Saints hear us isn’t revealed in detail in Scripture. We do know, however, that they do from the book of Revelation.
In the Bible the word saint simply means a holy person, one marked as a person of God through baptism and the Holy Spirit. So when we read about the “prayers of the saints” ascending to the Lamb like incense, we know these are the prayers of people on earth.
“And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” Revelation 5:8
Here the twenty-four elders are holding not only harps, but are the ones offering up the prayers of those on earth.