Glad You Asked: Why do Catholics venerate relics?

On this episode of the podcast, Jessica Mesman discusses the ancient practice of venerating relics and some of the controversial history around it.

Listen on: Apple | Google | Spotify

Christian history is full of stories about relics, from the quest of the holy grail to tales about unscrupulous medieval merchants hawking fake relics. Today, the practice of collecting and venerating relics of dead saints or artifacts from the life of Jesus might seem backwards and superstitious to some, disturbing or macabre to others. But the tradition of venerating relics is not simply an oddity on the margins of Catholic faith practice. For centuries, many have derived spiritual enrichment from this practice. And others enjoy it precisely because of its strangeness.

But what’s the theological and spiritual significance of this tradition? Why do Catholics venerate relics anyway? On this episode of the podcast, guest Jessica Mesman joins the hosts to discuss this ancient practice, some of the controversial history around it, and why Catholics today still collect and revere bits of bone and body parts of deceased holy people. 

Mesman is an associate editor at the Christian Century and formerly a culture columnist for U.S. Catholic. Her articles have appeared in LitHub, Elle, Vox, America, and Christianity Today, among others. Her first book, Love and Salt: A Spiritual Friendship in Letters (Loyola Press), coauthored with Amy Andrews Alznauer, won the Christopher Award in 2014.

Learn more about this topic and read some of Mesman’s writing in these links:

The following is a transcript of this episode of Glad You Asked.

Rebecca Bratten Weiss: Welcome to Glad You Asked, the podcast where we answer the questions about Catholicism that are easy to ask but not so easy to answer. I’m Rebecca Bratten Weiss, digital editor at U.S. Catholic.

Cassidy Klein: And I’m Cassidy Klein, editorial assistant at U.S. Catholic. Today we’re going to talk about one of those Catholic traditions that some approach with a sense of reverent piety, but others view as odd or superstitious.

Rebecca: And still others love this tradition, because they’re drawn to the weird and gothic aspects of a religion where we decorate our chapels with skulls, and display the mummified bodies of saints. Why do Catholics venerate relics?

Cassidy: Our guest is going to discuss this ancient practice, some of the controversial history around it, and why Catholics continue to revere relics. Jessica Mesman is associate editor of the Christian Century and formerly a cultural columnist for U.S. Catholic

Rebecca: Jessica’s articles and essays have appeared in LitHub, Elle, Vox, America, and Christianity Today, among others. Her first book, Love and Salt: A Spiritual Friendship in Letters, co-authored with Amy Andrews Alznauer, won the Christopher Award in 2014.

Cassidy: Jessica, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast.

Jessica Mesman Griffith: Thanks for having me.

Rebecca: So to start off, we should probably clarify what Catholics mean by venerating and how this is different from worshiping.

Jessica: Well, to venerate something or someone really just means to give it great respect or reverence. So the respect and reverence that Catholics give to sacred objects, like something that’s been blessed by a priest, a crucifix or a rosary or a relic, is not worship, which we only give to God. It’s veneration.

Cassidy: So Catholics talk about there being first class, second class, and third class relics. What does that mean?

Jessica: What I understand is that relics are divided into three classes. So first you have the body parts of a saint or a holy person who might become a saint, and those are first class relics. Any clothing or other objects that have been touched by the saint, like a rosary, are second class relics.

And then a small piece of cloth or other object that might have come into contact with either the first or the second class relic is considered a third class relic. So sometimes you’ll see like a laminated holy card with a third class relic, usually a little scrap of fabric laminated right into the card and it’ll just be like part of a handkerchief or something that someone has touched to something once touched by a saint.

Rebecca: So if any of us have touched a saint at some point, then perhaps we could consider ourselves to be a third-class relic, like if you shook hands with Pope John Paul II. When did the Catholic practice of collecting and venerating relics begin? And maybe more importantly, why?

Jessica: Right. Well, relics are mentioned in the Bible, in the Hebrew Bible, in II Kings, when a dead man is brought back to life after being thrown into Elijah’s tomb and coming into contact with his bones. So relics have been there from the beginning of the faith. And then in the Acts of the Apostles, in chapter 19, handkerchiefs or cloths that had been touched by Paul, I believe, were applied to the sick and cured them.

So the early church already had a practice of relics and venerated the relics of martyrs. And they also used reliquaries or little boxes or frames or pieces of jewelry that held a scrap of bone or fabric that had touched a saint. Those were really common among the faithful and up through the middle ages for the same reason people wanted to touch Paul’s handkerchiefs in Acts. And I think it’s because we believe the healing power of God works through his saints, even beyond their deaths. It’s also an act of remembrance and honor for those who have lived extraordinary lives of holiness, just like you might hold on to something that belonged to a loved one. When they died, you’re communing with them, you would hold on to a part of a saint. But as the practice of transferring bones and garments of saints grew, so did abuses. You’ll find St. Augustine denounced swindlers dressed as monks selling fake relics of saints.

So we’ve always venerated relics and we’ve also always been suspicious of relics. You should never be sure if the shard of bone you’re praying with is from a saint or from a grave digger’s cat. That’s part of the fun.

Cassidy: What are some of the more important or memorable relics in the Catholic faith tradition?

Jessica: Some of the most famous are the head of St. Catherine of Siena. There’s also the arm of St. Thomas Aquinas. And one of my favorites is the entire incorrupt body of St. Bernadette Soubirous. But in Pittsburgh, there’s a church called St. Anthony’s that actually has the largest collection of authenticated first class relics outside of the Vatican. And they have bone from St. Francis of Rome, St. Philip Neri, and St. Stephen, the first martyr. They also have the entire skeletal remains of St. Demetrius and the skulls of some of St. Ursula’s companions. And they’re all displayed in the chapel in the most Catholic macabre way you could possibly imagine.

Rebecca: So you mentioned that in the past, and probably still in the present, there was a lot of controversy over things like fake relics, trafficking in fake relics, and then disputes over whether they’re real or not. Could you say a little bit more about that?

Jessica: Yeah, so as I said before, fake relics have been a thing since the veneration of relics began, so since the earliest days of the church. But relics were also good business for churches because having a Vatican-approved relic meant that your church would attract pilgrims, which meant your church would attract money. So stealing actual Vatican-approved relics to sell to other churches was pretty common in the Middle Ages.

But as recently as the early 1980s, there was a story circulating about the Vatican supposedly stealing Jesus’s foreskin from a church in Italy during their annual procession on the feast of the circumcision of the Lord. And they didn’t do it because it was valuable. Lots of churches had claimed to have this foreskin. So this is probably not an authenticated relic. But because they wanted that veneration to stop because of bad optics.

So the church had removed the feast of the circumcision from the calendar during Vatican II, but the procession had continued year after year with the foreskin front and center. So the whole thing was encouraging what they called an irreverent curiosity about this supposed relic, according to the pope. So when it went missing, he was the prime suspect.

Cassidy: How many of the relics that Catholics venerate are likely to be genuine? Like, how can we tell, and does it even really matter?

Jessica: Well, some relics come with a certificate of authenticity from the Vatican. So if a church is displaying a relic for veneration, it should have that certificate of authenticity, usually in Latin, signed by an issuing religious cleric marked with an official seal. But that is not true of relics used for private devotion. And also the tests that we use to authenticate relics are kind of sketchy. Like which of these three pieces of the true cross cured a woman’s warts when she touched it? That one must be the real deal. So ultimately, I don’t think there’s any way to know for sure, but like so much else in the church, we choose to believe.

Rebecca: So I personally enjoy the idea of the pope being a prime suspect in the theft of a relic. I choose to believe that. But what is the official magisterial teaching on relics today, especially for those who turn to relics as a source of comfort and inspiration and might want to know that what they’re doing is correct in keeping with the church’s recommended practices?

Jessica: Well, I think for a long time, this has been one of those old fashioned practices that some people turned their nose up at after Vatican II. Was considered superstitious, something of the old church. But according to the catechism, the veneration of relics is permitted as long as it is clearly distinguished from worship or adoration, which are due to God alone. So go wild.

Cassidy: On a personal level, what do you think is the purpose of venerating relics? Like what can we get out of this spiritually?

Jessica: Well, honestly, I was a little bit horrified when I visited St. Anthony’s in Pittsburgh for the first time. It just felt like an ornate charnel house. There’s so many bones. It’s really overwhelming. So much blood. So many bits of little withered bits of skin. And the skulls of St. Ursula’s companions that I mentioned are wrapped in tulle and ribbon. Like they’re preparing to be wed or something. It’s all, it’s just very macabre. And it felt like a fever dream of what Protestants think Catholicism is, like a Chick Tract. And the first time I went there, I took someone who was thinking of converting. And I just remember thinking, oh my God, she’s never gonna wanna be Catholic now. But I was totally wrong. She’s the one who said to me, the cradle Catholic, that all of these bits of bone and blood were there because great saints had once lived, really lived and carried bones and blood and their living flesh. The potential hoax of it all even intrigued her. She found it a compelling challenge to see past the carnage and all the charges of superstition and even like the near absurdity of it all, to the belief in holiness that it pointed toward. And that’s what I think about any time I encounter a relic today or pray with a relic. It’s that love and horror and awe and mystery that we encounter when we encounter real holiness.

Rebecca: I love that, Jessica. I love this reminder of the physicality of our faith. So thank you for that. And thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today.

Jessica: Happy to be here, thank you.

Glad You Asked is sponsored by the Claretian Missionaries.