Relics Physically Connect Sanctity and History

COMMENTARY: The Catholic faith is something that is lived out time and again in the flesh and blood of the saints and martyrs.

A relic of Mother Teresa at the Regina Coeli Prison in Rome, Italy, on Aug. 30, where a viewing of a documentary on Mother Teresa took place.
A relic of Mother Teresa at the Regina Coeli Prison in Rome, Italy, on Aug. 30, where a viewing of a documentary on Mother Teresa took place. (photo: Daniel Ibanez/CNA)

One of the deacons at my parish is a former Lutheran pastor. Richard rescues relics. When he comes across a relic that is being disrespected or even being discarded, he rescues it and gives it a good home.

He and I are both dismayed at the casual disregard so many Catholics have for relics. Therefore, for our parish celebration of All Saints’ Day, we bring out all the reliquaries and set each one up at a little station with a candle and a name card.

Over the years, we have venerated nearly 20 saints in this way, and now that we are preparing to dedicate our new church, we have been given a collection of more than 20 more.

What is a relic, and how are relics classified? A first-class relic is a portion of the saint or blessed’s physical body. The first-class relic of St. Faustina I brought back from a recent visit to Poland is a tiny fragment of bone. The first-class relic of Pope St. John Paul II is a small piece of linen soaked in his blood.

A second-class relic is a physical object the saint used regularly. It could be a page from the saint’s breviary, a scrap of his religious habit, an article of clothing, a rosary or a book from her library.

A third-class relic is a piece of cloth that has been touched to a first-class relic. These are often embedded in a bookmark or as part of another devotional item.

In the case of recently canonized saints, relics abound. When we visited Poland, we saw rooms full of Pope John Paul’s belongings … rosaries, papal vestments, his skis, his sweaters, his backpack for hiking and the kayak he used. If you visit the little apartment where Blessed Archbishop Oscar Romero lived in San Salvador, you will see the blood-stained vestments he was wearing when he was assassinated, his cassocks, books, eyeglasses and personal memorabilia. 

Likewise, when we visited Niepokalanow — the friary in Poland that St. Maximilian Kolbe founded — we were inside one huge second-class relic. We walked through his cell, saw his hats, coats, habit, breviary, vestments and books. When we went to Auschwitz the next day, the experience was complete, as we knelt in the doorway of the punishment cell where he was starved and then killed with a lethal injection.

The first-class relics we usually venerate are simply little fragments of this much greater experience of the reality and the relevance of the saints. 

When we venerate a little fragment of bone, scraps of cloth with saints’ blood or keep a page from a prayer book, rosary or a scrap of a habit, we are connecting with the reality of their lives and their place in history.

A relic, therefore, is much more than the tiny fragment of bone or the blood-stained cloth. It is a reminder of the reality of the faith.

The Catholic faith is not just a good idea. It is something that is lived out time and again in the flesh and blood of the saints and martyrs. 

When we venerate a relic, we are reminded that our faith is as real as the physical realm. It is as fluid and fresh as hair and flesh. It is as real as tooth and nail, bone and blood. 

Furthermore, the Catholic faith is not real if it is not lived out in this way. It is not just a document. It is not just a list of rule and regulations. It is not just a theological theory. Pope Benedict XVI said, “The lives of the saints are lived theology,” and “The Bible can only be interpreted through the lives of the saints.”

If the relic reminds us of the reality of the faith, it also reminds us of its relevance and reverence. Pope John Paul II’s life was alive with the history and sufferings of the Polish people and the terrible events of the 20th century. 

Oscar Romero’s life was embedded in the life of the poor and the life of the Gospel. In their own way, St. Maximilian Kolbe and St. Faustina were also at the heart of what God was doing in the terrible tumult and horrors of Nazism and communism. 

In the face of the terror, they all stood for courage. In the face of the cruelty, they stood for mercy. In the face of the oppression, they stood for freedom. In the face of recrimination and revenge, they stood for forgiveness. In the face of the horror, they stood for hope.

Relics are a physical connection with sanctity and history. This is why they are real, and this is why they are relevant. And this is why we reverence them. 

They are more than a mere chip of bone or scrap of bloodstained cloth. They are a connection to history and a reminder of the reality and relevance of our religion.

Father Dwight Longenecker is a priest of the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina.