8 Misunderstandings about Catholic Relics

Catholic relics can be difficult to understand. Here we explain eight common misconceptions!

A woman praying at a relic of the young saint Therese Martin
A woman praying at a relic of the young saint Therese Martin

I think it’s fair to say that one of the most misunderstood aspects of the Catholic faith is the use of relics and the part they play in our relationship with God. Here, we explore eight of the most common misconceptions.

1. What is a relic

A relic is some object, notably part of the body or clothes, remaining as a memorial of a departed saint. Relics are held in reverence by the Church and sometimes associated with miraculous healings and other acts of God. They are often used by God to give us a gift of something spiritual (grace) by means of physical things.

2. It’s not magic

Something both Catholics and non-Catholics often get wrong about relics is that they think they are a magic charm, and the use of these material things forces God to do something for us. Relics don’t compel God to work in any way. Their use depends on God, who established their capability, so their effects are divine, not natural, in their origin. An example of Jesus himself giving a spiritual gift through physical matter is when he healed a blind man with mud and spittle in John 9:1-7.

3. It’s not worshipping matter

The great biblical scholar, St. Jerome, declared, “We do not worship, we do not adore, for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the creator, but we venerate the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore him whose martyrs they are” (Ad Riparium, i, P.L., XXII, 907).

A girl with Saint Maria Goretti
A girl with Saint Maria Goretti

4. It’s biblical

The use of the bones of Elisha brought a dead man to life (2 Kgs. 13:20-21), the woman cured of a haemorrhage by touching the hem of Christ’s cloak (Matt. 9:20-22), the sick who were healed when Peter’s shadow passed over them (Acts 5:14-16) and handkerchiefs or aprons which had touched the body of St. Paul were used to heal the sick and possessed (Acts 19:11-12). All of these are clear and biblical examples of God using relics to impart his grace upon his people.

5. It’s a tradition that goes right back to the early Church

Written documents going right back to A.D. 156 show explicitly how the Church has always venerated relics, and oral tradition goes even further.

This is the earliest written account and documents what Christians did following the martyrdom of St. Polycarp: “We took up his bones, which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place, where the Lord will permit us to gather ourselves together, as we are able, in gladness and joy and to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom.”

6. Fakes: some, the majority: no

It’s fair to say that in the past there have been several incidences of fake relics but, just like with any assertion, when something is claimed to be a relic it goes under some intense scrutiny to test the validity of the claim. Have there been any frauds? Sure. But in most cases, relics are either known to be genuine or there is some reason to think they may be genuine, even if complete proof is impossible.

Most relics cannot be fakes because most relics are the bones of ordinary saints of history who were well known and whose remains were never lost in the first place.

A relic of Saint John Paul II
A relic of Saint John Paul II

7. The relics of the true cross would not fill a ten ton truck

A common assertion by cynics is that if all the pieces of the true cross were brought together you would end up filling a ten ton truck with all the pieces of wood. The charge is nonsense. In 1870, a Frenchman, Rohault de Fleury, catalogued all the relics of the True Cross, including relics that were said to have existed but were lost. He measured the existing relics and estimated the volume of the missing ones. Then he added up the figures and discovered that the fragments, if glued together, would not have made up more than one-third of a cross.

8. Where to find relics

We can often feel that relics are mythical items that are far removed from our normal lives. The truth is that most likely your local Catholic church has a couple of its own which you can ask the local priest to see and venerate. If you are interested in finding specific ones, however, here is a link to a website with a list of relics and where to find them, as well as a bit of additional relic’s info.