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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

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Questions & Answers About Relics & Holy Pictures

Why do Catholics show honor to the relics of saints?

One could also ask, why does a child save his dead mother’s ring? Why are the belongings of those we love sometimes treated as sacred? Why do fans collect memorabilia of their sports heroes and entertainment stars? The story is told about a very old man who insisted in his will instructions that a locket of hair and a particular handkerchief be placed in his casket. It turned out that these were the only items that he possessed from a girl who had suffered a fatal accident when he was a young man. He loved her. He still loved her. Relics, no matter whether they be something used or worn by the departed saint, or something contacted to the body after death, or even a part of the body itself, all point to the life and extraordinary discipleship of the faithful departed. They remind us that the bonds of faith and life are not destroyed by death. Love is stronger than death. In the case of saints, relics are tangible reminders that true holiness is possible. Relics, especially of the body, provide an intimate connection with the departed. Such relics are held in special esteem because the living bodies of Christians are temples of the Holy Spirit. The souls of the righteous live with God and one day they will rise body and soul with Christ. The Christian sees the dead body, not crudely as an empty husk, but as an element of our personhood esteemed for its past powers and consecrated by the grace of God. We treat the bodies of the faithful departed with a profound respect and reverence. Every corpse reminds us of our Savior who was brought down from his cross and laid in a tomb. We have been signed in Christ crucified. And yet, we know the promise of what waits for us on the other side of the cross.

Nevertheless, is it not idolatry to honor relics, even in they are parts of a person’s dead body?

No, it is not idolatry. Of course, as with devotion to saints, error exists in the extremes. If one were to offer divine worship to things and persons, living or dead, then it would be idolatry and a serious sin. The Church, herself, teaches this. Rather, by honoring the friends of God, we honor God himself.

Do Catholics use relics as talismans, believing while they wear or carry them, that no evil can befall them?

This question has to be very carefully answered because we live in times when there has been a resurgence of witchcraft in naturalist and new age cults. Some of this unfortunate business is infecting our young people and entering the mainstream. It is peculiar that in our technological age and scientific culture that many of the old superstitions are reappearing, albeit in refashioned guises. Certainly, kids use to do such things as carry a rabbit’s foot for good luck, although having four of them did the rabbit no good. However, what was once done in fun has taken on the pallor of a religion. While some people will wear crosses and attribute little if any meaning in the practice; others use religious symbols and items to ward off bad luck and curses. Sometimes they even commit sacrilege in pseudo-religious rituals.

I recall one time finding wax figures used in such diabolical practices, along with profane candles and statuary of the saints (dressed in strange voodoo clothing) hidden in a church. A woman from Haiti turned out to be the culprit. She had tainted her Catholic faith with pagan superstition. This is a terrible sin and a grave offence against God.

Having offered this warning, it must be said that in Catholic circles it is held that relics might avert evil. However, the object itself has no magical power! The relic becomes an expression of our faith, just as we may voice it in words and actions. If our faith is real and actualized in charity, then God may indeed see in a relic a call for assistance. Further, the saint represented by the relic may also intercede and pray for us.

How do we know that the so-called saint is actually in heaven?

We can know it from the holy life they lived while still in the world, by the wonders and miracles he performed, and by the scrutinizing canonization process itself in the Catholic Church.

Does the Bible say anything about us honoring relics?

Look at Exodus 13:19: “And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him; for Joseph had solemnly sworn the people of Israel, saying, ‘God will visit you; then you must carry my bones with you from here.’” Now read Acts 5:15-16: “They even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on beds and pallets, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them . . . . the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits . . . were all healed.” Another passage is Acts 19:11-12: “And God did extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried away from his body to the sick, and diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.” All this goes to prove the importance of relics, particularly when grounded in Christian faith. But how could it be any other way? Like the hemorrhaging woman, who believed that touching the mere tassel of our Lord’s cloak would bring her healing, may we also use wisely the things of God.

Moving on to a related topic, why do Catholics keep holy pictures in their homes?

These images bring to mind the lives and virtues of the saint they represent. They inspire us to imitate their example.

But, if this is all it is, then why do Catholics kneel down and bow before such pictures and statues?

These representations assist our imaginations. While the custom of bowing at official engagements has been largely lost in secular greetings; it has been retained in regards to religious practice. We bend at the waist as a signed of greeting and respect to an old friend in heaven (whom the image represents). If we fall to our knees, we are actually taking a humble stance before Christ himself who has often shined ever so brightly in the lives of his saints.

Does the Bible say that we are permitted to make pictures and statues in honor of the saints?

First of all, we are doing little more externally than what civil society does in putting up a statue in honor of a famous citizen or soldier. Second, there is ample precedent for such a practice in the Bible. (The reason for the Hebrew reservation regarding images was because so many of the peoples around them actually worshipped false gods of stone.) We read in Exodus 25:18: “And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat.” In Numbers 21:8-9, we read: “And the LORD said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’ So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.” The brazen serpent foreshadowed (as a type) Christ and his saving cross. Honoring the Ark of the Covenant, “Joshua rent his garments and fell flat on the ground, before the ark of the Lord until evening, both he and all the ancients of Israel.”

Nevertheless, how can this be reconciled with the divine prohibition, “You shall not make a picture or any other likeness . . . thou shall not adore them, nor serve them” (see Exodus 20:4)?

Context here means everything. Otherwise, one would have to say that the Word of God contradicts itself. The invisible God of the Hebrews absolutely forbid the making of images for purposes of divine adoration. However, he did not prohibit images as such. Indeed, in the case of the ark, they were mandated. Of course, given the inclination of the early Jews to fall easily into idol worship, it is no wonder that the prohibition was often extended and made more severe.

Making a secular comparison, many of us adorn our homes with statuary, paintings, and photographs. We have them for beauty and for sentimental reasons. Is a picture of one’s child or a grandmother vain idolatry? I think not. Neither are depictions of saints and other holy personages.

For more such material, contact me about getting my book, CATHOLIC QUESTIONS & ANSWERS.