by Fr W. Nkomo
With the relics of St Pope John Paul II on pilgrimage to places that have a link to him, seeing that our diocese in particular is one of them, I found it important to clarify some important elements on the tradition of relics.
What is a relic?
According to the Catholic encyclopedia “a relic is some object, notably part of the body or clothes, remaining as a memorial of a departed saint.” That is, physical objects that have a direct association with the saints or with Our Lord. They are usually broken down into three classes:
- First class relics are the body or fragments of the body of a saint, such as pieces of bone or flesh.
- Second class relics are something that a saint personally owned, such as a shirt or book (or fragments of those items).
- Third class relics are those items that a saint touched or that have been touched to a first, second, or another third class relic of a saint.
Where did the Catholic tradition of venerating saints’ relics come from?
Scripture teaches that God acts through relics, especially in terms of healing. We in fact, find scripture passages that justify the Church’s relic tradition.
When the corpse of a man was touched to the bones of the prophet Elisha the man came back to life and rose to his feet (2 Kings 13:20-21). A woman was healed of her haemorrhage simply by touching the hem of Jesus’ cloak (Matthew 9:20-22).
The signs and wonders worked by the Apostles were so great that people would line the streets with the sick so that when Peter walked by at least his shadow might ‘touch’ them and they were healed (Acts 5:12-15). When handkerchiefs or aprons that had been touched to Paul were applied to the sick, the people were healed and evil spirits were driven out of them (Acts 19:11-12).
What is the spiritual significance of relics?
In each of the above instances from scripture God has brought about a healing using a material object. The vehicle for the healing was the touching of that object. It is very important to note, therefore, that the cause of the healing is God; the relics are a means through which He acts. In other words, relics are not magic. They do not contain a power that is their own; a power separate from God. Any good that comes about through a relic is God’s doing. But the fact that God chooses to use the relics of saints to work healing and miracles tells us that He wants to draw our attention to the saints as “models and intercessors” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 828). Therefore we do not venerate the relics of saints for their sake but we do so for the sake of worshipping God.
We thank God for the gift of Saints who are models of our faith especially St Pope John Paul II whose relics will be in our midst on January 26 2020. We thank God also for the pilgrims from the Parish of St Anthony in Poland who remembered our diocese as a place linked to St John Paul II.