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A few years before her going home to the Lord, Mother Teresa of Calcutta visited one of her many convents for the Sisters of Charity, this one in Norristown, PA. It seems that during her visit, she was in need of a haircut and asked one of the sisters if she would be kind enough to accommodate her. After the haircut and when Mother Teresa had left the room, every precious strand of her hair regardless of size, was collected and saved. In this incident we see the veneration, which her fellow Sisters of Charity have for their founder.
The practice of venerating relics is both reasonable and profitable.
What are relics? In the strict sense relics are the bodies or parts of the bodies of the saints, which are preserved and honored in order to remind us of their virtues and their holy lives. Relics include things belonging to the saints and things, which the saints used, like books, rosaries, religious habits or other pieces of clothing. We also consider as relics things, which have touched the bodies of God's heroes, and the instruments used to torture them or put them to death.
It is most important to make clear that we Catholics do not honor these material objects for their own sakes, as having any particular value in themselves; least of all are we to associate any magical powers to them. We do honor relics, however, as relating to those holy individuals whom we venerate. Relics are somewhat like souvenirs of sanctity, memorials of some remarkable member of the Church, reminders of real people who really served God in a heroic way.
The honor we Catholics pay to relics is reasonable and lawful. Everything holy deserves veneration and respect. We honor the Bible, putting and keeping it in a respectable place, even though it is in itself mere paper. We honor a church building, even though it is made of wood or brick.
Honoring memorials and keepsakes of the great is a universal instinct and practice. What son or daughter will not treasure the earrings or the watch that mother used, even though it might be of a cheap make? Mother used it. Mother wore it. That is enough. If we Americans hold in veneration the sword of Washington and even the bed in which he slept, then surely it is permissible to pay homage and respect to the material things used by God's heroes.
The bodies of the saints were the temples of the Holy Spirit. They enshrined souls, which were on fire and alight with the love of God. Those bodies shared in their sacrifices and labors. Why should those bodies not share in the glory?
To see a relic of Saint Anthony, for instance, will bring to mind his heroic virtues and the wonders he has obtained from Almighty God. The sight of his relic will spur us to imitate his sanctity.
The Church, which Christ established, approves the honoring of relics. She even requires that in every altar stone there be contained the relics of two saints.
God Himself has approved the honoring of relics. We read proof of this in the Old Testament and in the New. For example, we read that the very shadow of Saint Peter healed the sick (Acts 5: 15). The linen cloths from the body of Saint Paul also healed (Acts 19: 12).
There are various ways of honoring relics:
A. By burning lamps or candles before them.
B. By building shrines and reliquaries for them.
C. By carrying those relics in procession.
D. By making pilgrimages to their shrines. The number of shrines, some world-famous and others only locally known is without number.
E. By making votive offerings in the form of objects offered in thanksgiving or in petition, like flowers, crutches, or similar worthy gifts.
The desire to honor the great, especially those great in holiness, is instinctive in the human heart. The teaching of the Church on relics is Biblical, sensible, and helpful. It goes without saying that one must not emphasize relic veneration to the exclusion or neglect of other devotions. The veneration of relics is a positive help in our service of God and our imitation of Christ and His saints.
© 2003 – Victor R. Claveau
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"Let us fear the Lord Jesus, Whose blood
was given for us; let us respect our leaders;
let us honor the presbyters;
let us teach the young in the school of the fear of God."
-Pope St. Clement I