The meaning of relics

In the chapel of the Martin family home where St Therese was born, and in the Basilica of Notre-Dame, we can venerate the relics of Blessed Louis and Zélie.

What does it mean to venerate relics?

“In the Catholic Church, the veneration of the relics of saints goes back to the custom of burying martyrs who followed the sacrifice of Christ and praying over their tombs.

The tombs of saints have always been objects of veneration, giving rise to the construction of basilicas, oratories and centres of pilgrimage.  The cult of sainthood is part of Catholic faith.

Relics can be not only the bones of a saint, but also their clothes and personal possessions.  In the 5C, the Church authorities warned of incidences of abuse.

They had to be sure that relics were authentic and not commercially exploited.

But beyond potential misuse – such as superstition or magic – the Church has always considered the veneration of relics as legitimate, and the practice regained currency in the Middle Ages.

From that period, we find magnificent reliquaries made of precious materials containing the remains of saints to be displayed for veneration by the faithful.  The Vatican II document on liturgy reminds us that, “according to Tradition, saints constitute a cult in the Church, where their true relics and images are venerated”. (No 11)

In the Catholic Church’s Catechism for the young, it is recognised that “the veneration of relics stems from a natural human need to show respect and devotion to saints.  It is appropriate to venerate the relics of saints if in the gift of their lives to God, we praise the action of God himself.” (Youcat no 275)

“Relics lead us to God himself.  It is indeed He who, through the strength of His grace, gives to weak humans the courage to be His witnesses in the world.  By inviting us to venerate the mortal remains of martyrs and saints, the Church is mindful of the fact that whilst these are only poor human bones, they are bones that belonged to people visited by the transcendent power of God.

The relics of saints are traces of the invisible but real presence that lights up the dark corners of the world, proof that the reign of God is within us all.  They cry with us and for us, ‘Maranatha’ – ‘Come, Lord Jesus’.”

Benedict XVI, speech to the 2005 World Youth Day, Cologne 20 August