Why Do Catholics Venerate Relics?

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I’ve heard several people express the sentiment that of all Catholic traditions, the veneration of relics is the one they least understand, and they are maybe even a little creeped out by it. In a way, I get it—it seems a little weird and morbid to take the earthly remains of a saint and wear them in a locket. But relics have played a major role in Catholic tradition and prayer through the centuries, and many people make pilgrimages to visit relics of powerful saints. So why, exactly, do we venerate relics? What is the meaning of this practice, and how can it affect our own prayer lives?

Catholicism is not purely a conceptual or emotional religion; it is also an earthy religion. It incorporates all five of our senses into the liturgy, with candles and incense and Rosaries, music and bells and the Blessed Sacrament in Bread and Wine. It takes into account the reality of the created world, and it resists the heresy of Gnosticism—the idea that our bodies are corrupt and that we ought to reject the material world in order to engage in the spiritual world. Our earthly bodies are not just outer shells that house our true selves; they are part of our very being. We are made up of mind, body, and soul, and all three of those elements combine to make us who we are. What we do with our physical bodies matters on a spiritual level.

St. John Paul II venerating the sacred body of St. Maria Goretti

There is no saint that illustrates this idea better than St. Maria Goretti, a martyr who died refusing to act in a way that would have defiled the physical body, while imploring her killer to do the same. Last month, I was able to venerate the relics of St. Maria Goretti during the Pilgrimage of Mercy tour, which is still going on now. I was particularly moved by the priest’s homily, which mentioned many of the miracles that have taken place through Maria’s intercession. Many people have experienced powerful healings, inexplicable through scientific means, after placing a relic of St. Maria by their injuries. It is fitting that God would use Maria’s relics as a means of bringing physical healing. The Pilgrimage of Mercy website explains how relics do not have power in and of themselves, but that God frequently chooses use them to bring about His healing:

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.

Sint-Gabriel_Hekendorp_07_RelicsIs the veneration of relics morbid? Maybe. But then again, Catholicism has always had the tendency to be a bit morbid. Think of the monks who greet each other by saying “Memento mori”—“Remember you must die.” Every November we celebrate All Souls’ Day, often by visiting graveyards. And every time we enter a church, we look up at a crucifix that depicts Jesus being brutally tortured and killed. Why do we give so much attention to these things? The reason is summed up in 1 Corinthians 15:55: “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” Things that seem morbid on a purely earthly level take on a whole new meaning when we consider the victory that Jesus has won for us in Heaven. We know that there is a world beyond this one waiting for us, and that gives us a confidence in the face of death. We can be brave amidst the difficult trials of this world. We hold on to physical relics as reminders that this world is passing, that another world awaits us, and that what we do in this physical world has implications in the next.

Incorrupt body of St. Bernadette

God has glorified Himself through the physical body of St. Maria Goretti, and He continues to reveal His tender care for our earthly lives through the presence of His saints. We can remain aware of how He works through creation by taking care of our own physical bodies and by incorporating our senses in prayer—perhaps by taking a walk to a beautiful church to pray, visiting a place where a saint once walked, using a favorite Rosary, lighting a candle, wearing holy medals that have been blessed, or venerating relics of a special saint.

If the Pilgrimage of Mercy tour is headed to your city in the next month, I would highly recommend taking the time to visit. Check out the schedule here!

1. Simon de l’Ouest / CC BY-SA 4.0
2. Treasures of the Church, Pilgrimage of Mercy
3. Onderwijsgek / CC BY-SA 3.0 NL
4. Marina Genger / Public domain


Erin Cain

Erin Cain

Erin Cain is a writer and editor living in New York City, drinking lots of Earl Grey tea, and attempting to grow in virtue and love. She writes at Work in Progress.

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  1. With all respect to you, I believe in the bible as the Word of God, and it tells me that, “For the love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:14-18). “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer.” So why Catholics at still regarding others from a human point of view? And even our Lord Jesus Christ, they still regard Him from a human point of view! Is this so hard for one to understand? We walk by faith not by sight we read some verses before (vers 7). Our Lord Himself made it clear in John 6 when He said, “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” (John 6:63). We must remember the example of the apostles when they said that, “. . . “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29). Thank you and God bless.

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