Relics

According to Roman Catholics, the material remains of a saint and any other objects which have had contact with him. These are to be venerated on the grounds that the bodies of the saints, now with Christ, were once living members of the church and temples of the Holy Ghost, destined to be raised to eternal life and glorification. Since the Godhead makes them the occasion for miracles, they are to be venerated by the faithful for in this way God bestows many gifts on men. Biblical justification for this cult is sought in Acts 19:12, where healing power is shown to be in handkerchiefs which had been in touch with Paul's body. OT references are also cited (e.g., 2 Kings 2:14; 13:21, where miracles are said to have occurred through Elijah's mantle and Elisha's bones).

The earliest classical instance of the veneration of relics is said to be found in a letter written by the inhabitants of Smyrna about 156, describing the death of Polycarp* in which they said, “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.” The cult spread rapidly in both East and West, and the increasing demand for relics which arose led in the East to the translating and dismemberment of the bodies of the saints. In 1084 the Council of Constantinople approved the veneration of relics for the Eastern Church, although it has always been overshadowed by the widespread use of icons. At Rome the cult was associated with the prayer services held in the catacombs (burial places for Christians), and from the fourth century the Eucharist was celebrated over the tombs of the martyrs. Unlike the East where no repugnance was felt over dismemberment, in Rome the Theodosian Code expressly forbade the translation, division, or dismemberment of the remains of the martyrs. The practice was, however, introduced in the West in the seventh and eighth centuries. The Council of Nicea* (787) decreed that no church should be consecrated without relics. The Crusades* gave a special impetus to the cult since relics, often spurious, were brought back in abundance from Palestine to Europe.

The cult has often been associated with superstitious practices, inevitable perhaps because of the influx of converted pagans into the church. Veneration of relics is said to be a primitive instinct of man and has been associated with many non- Christian religions such as Buddhism. The very nature of the cult lends itself to abuses, and with religious centers eager to be known as possessors of some unusually startling relic, fabrications were inevitable. The ecclesiastical authorities have made some efforts to secure the faithful against deception. Canon law forbids relics to be venerated which have not been authorized by a cardinal or bishop, and the sale of genuine relics as well as fabrications or distributions of false ones is punished by excommunication. It is still true, however, that many of the ancient relics exhibited for veneration in the great sanctuaries of Christendom are open to grave suspicion.