In its March 25, 2007 issue, Our Sunday Visitor has an article on relics. Relics fall into three categories:
First-class relics: the actual body or remains of a saint
Second-class relics: something that belonged to a saint
Third-class relics: something that has been touched to a first-class relic of a saint
Relics do have an important place in Catholic practice. For example, all altars in Catholic churches are supposed to contain a relic of a saint. (I keep forgetting to find out which saint St Ann’s has a relic of.) This was always something that struck me as a little superstitious. While I didn’t deny that God could work through anything, it struck me as kind of odd. Even recognizing the link between body and soul, and that a good soul, therefore, could purify the body, the concept of relics left me cold. This article, by Thomas J. Craughwell, though raised some excellent points on the Scriptural and historical basis of relics (no public link available to the whole article):
The veneration of saints’ relics is as old as the Church. In the Acts of the Apostles, we read that St. Paul sent his handkerchiefs and other pieces of cloth to Christians who were sick (19:12).
A letter from the year 156 gives us a detailed eyewitness account of the martyrdom of St. Polycarp, the 86-year-old bishop of Smyrna, and what became of his remains after the Romans had burned him at the stake. “We took up his bones,” the anonymous author of the letter said, “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 .. to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom.”
In that one sentence we learn that the early Christians venerated relics of the saints, enshrined their remains and kept an annual feast day on the anniversary of the martyrdom.
After reflecting on this a little, I remembered the story of Elisha’s entombed body bringing a man back to life (2 Kings 13:20-21):
Elisha died and was buried. At the time, bands of Moabites used to raid the land each year.
Once some people were burying a man, when suddenly they spied such a raiding band. So they cast the dead man into the grave of Elisha, and everyone went off. But when the man came in contact with the bones of Elisha, he came back to life and rose to his feet.
So, despite still being vaguely creepy, relics do have a Biblical basis. It’s a practice it may take me a while to break free of my heebie-jeebies towards them, but it definitely seems to match with the Biblical beliefs and practices as well as those of the early Christians.