Catechesis: Understanding Relics
As I type, the relics of Don Bosco are on our island. The Don Bosco. Here. In Malta.
That's a pretty big deal!
However, while this event was met with much excitement it also got some of us thinking about relics. Particularly all the things we actually don't understand about them. Is venerating a relic idolatry? What consititues a relic? These are just a couple of questions that were posed. So, in light of this we asked Fr. David Cefai to focus his next teaching on the ins and outs of relics.
That's exactly what he did; and below is what he said (not quite exactly, but close enough).
First, some basics. There are three types of relics:
1. A first degree relic : that's actually a part of the body of the saint
2. A second degree relic : that's something they owned
3. A third degree relic : that's any object that has touched a first or second degree relic.
The whole concept of relics can, at first, seem a little strange to some people, even bordering on the creepy. A number of Christian denominations look upon this Catholic tradition as 'another Medieval corruption of the Catholic Church'. However, this could not be further from the truth. This belief and tradition stems from the Early Church and evidence of this can be found in the Bible, in both the Old and the New Testaments.
Take the example from 2Kings 13 : 20 - 22. Here Elijah is dead and his body has been buried. Some Israelites are burying a body when they see a band of Moabite raiders. There reaction is to stow the body away in Elijah's tomb. The body touches Elijah's bones and consequently, miraculously, springs to life again.
Now for the New Testament. Mark 5 : 27 - 29 tells us of a woman who had suffered from bleeding for 12 years. Upon seeing Jesus she immediately goes up to him and touches his cloak thinking that even simply touching his cloak would heal her. She was right. From a second degree relic to a third; Acts 19 : 11 -12. This passage tells us that people were being healed and exorcised simply by touching handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched Paul.
Let's focus a little more on relics in the Early Church.
It's important to note that in Jewish culture any form of images were banned. As was holding on to the belongings of the dead, or anything that had touched them. Jesus overruled both these laws when he himself left behind the very first relics of the Church.
He did this in the resurrection - the reason for, and proof of, our whole religious system. The relics I speak of here are the Sindon and the Sudarium. The sindon being the shroud of Jesus and the sudarium being the piece of cloth that was wrapped around Jesus' head when he was taken off the cross.
The shroud of Turin (the sindon) is the single most studied artefact in human history, which isn't surprising given what it stands for, and conclusions from these studies are that it is 100% legit (do a little Google search to learn more). The bottom line, as told in John 20 : 5 -9, is this - these pieces of linen were, and still are, proof of the resurrection and were deemed important enough to be kept by the Church for all these thousands of years. The church broke away from the anit-imagery Jewish law because of the importance of these relics.
Now what of the relics of saints?
In Revelations 6: 9 -11 we see the mention of martyred souls buried under an altar who are told to wait for their brothers and sisters to join them. Brothers and sisters. Would you not treat the remains of your brothers and sisters with respect? Not only are saints our brothers and sisters in Christ, but they're SAINTS! They're holy, they've lived lives worthy of aspiring to. This does not mean they compete with our worship of God. Far from it. They help us in it. They link us to the life of grace. We don't get grace from the saints but they are a channel to a life of grace. We pray to the saints and ask for their intercession just as we would a member of our community.
Countless examples of miracles through the veneration of the relics of saints are known to us (local shoutout to San Gorg Preca) and that in itself is proof that God wants and blesses this veneration.
With relics we're proclaiming ONE Church. One Church with heaven (which includes the saints), purgatory and earth. Relics are a visible link to this invisible reality of the mystical body.
Put simply, a relic is a direct link to a success story.