Question: Would you please explain the Catholic use of relics? (P.L., Chicago)
Answer: The custom of keeping relics of deceased loved ones long predates Christianity. It is a natural instinct to preserve the memory of the deceased by marking the place of their remains, keeping a lock of their hair, displaying their pictures, or by retaining some of their possessions as momentos. We see this all the time in civil society, where museums contain the memorabilia of famous artists, statesmen, generals, and other notable people. Americans who have been to the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington should have no trouble in understanding why Catholics venerate the relics of the saints.
Relics are often classified according to their dignity as follows:
Sometimes relics in categories "c" and "d" are incorporated in replicas of the saint from which they derive, or of the object of which they are a fragment. (e.g. Examples exist of a piece of St.Peter's chains being cast into a full scale representation of those chains.)
Those relics in the first two categories are to be kept in churches and public oratories, while those in the second two categories may be kept by the faithful in their homes or even carried about.1 Pictures and statues are not relics in the normal sense of the word, but they are mentioned in the same section of Canon Law, and their veneration is covered by many of the same principles.2
Only God Himself is worthy of being worshipped in the full sense of that word; "latria" being the Greek term used to describe His adoration as Creator by men. The saints, and particularly the Virgin Mary as first among them, receive a much lesser form of respect; the Greek word "dulia" being used to describe an attitude of subordination and dependence on the part of the faithful with respect to those in heaven. Relics are venerated by the faithful as momentos of the saints. Any "power" attributed to a particular relic is understood not to arise within the relic itself, but to be brought about through the intercession of the saint in heaven whose relic is being venerated.
In the early days of the Church, Christians gathered for Mass in the Roman Catacombs. By Roman law these burial grounds were relatively free from persecution by the officials. After a few centuries of offering Mass literally "on the tombs of the martyrs," it was quite natural that the altars in the first public churches housed the remains of the saints. The growth of the Church relative to the number of martyrs brought about the custom of including smaller relics in altar stones and fixed altars. In the Eastern Churches the relics are sewn into a large cloth decorated with pictures or symbols of our crucified Lord. This cloth, called an antimensium, has been adopted in the West by military chaplains and others who must make use of a portable altar.
There is an obvious difficulty in identifying the authentic relics of the saints, particularly of those many years dead. In years past, relics were sometimes made to "prove themselves" by their ability to facilitate miracles. St. Helen, for example, is said to have distinguished the True Cross from the crosses of the thieves through the power of the former to heal a very sick man. When the same Cross was recovered from the Persians, the Emperor Heraclius was unable to carry it to Mount Calvary until he exchanged his imperial robes for those of a beggar.
The unknowing veneration of a spurious relic is still spiritually valuable, as any expected benefit can come only from the intercession of the saint and not from the relic itself. Under these circumstances an unauthentic relic is much like a picture or statue, representing the saint in the minds of the faithful.
Since the Council of Trent, relics offered for public veneration must be authenticated by the Holy See or a Cardinal or by the local Ordinary.3 It is forbidden to cast doubt without basis on the authenticity of a relic venerated by the faithful.4 Distinguished relics and precious images may not be transferred from one Church to another without consent of the Holy See; and even less significant relics should not be bought and sold.5 (Presumably it is permissible to cover the costs associated with obtaining a relic -- transportation, authentication, packaging, etc. -- if no price is charged for the intrinsic value of the relic as such.)
Finally, the absence of bodily relics of our Lord and Lady corroborates the belief of Christians from the earliest days of the Church, that after His Resurrection our Lord bodily ascended into heaven, and that our Lady was likewise assumed, body and soul, at the end of her earthly life. If their bodies had remained on earth we certainly would posses their relics!