As a Protestant, I have to admit: I don’t get relics.
The idea of lining up to look at the bones, flesh or ashes of dead people strikes me as weird, and a little bit morbid.
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t meaningful for many people—especially Roman Catholics.
That’s what’s happening across Canada this month as the right forearm of St. Francis Xavier, the sixteenth century Jesuit missionary, travels across the country. (Photo above.)
Although many find the practice strange, the veneration of relics has a long history in the Christian church.
One of the first recorded instances goes back to the martyrdom of St. Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna (now Turkey), who was killed by the Romans in the second century.
After his death, the Romans burned his body to prevent Christians from venerating it.
But local believers collected fragments of the body to remember him and others “who have run their race and to prepare those yet to walk in their steps.”
By the Middle Ages, the collection of relics, was in full swing.
Today, a tourist location is popular because it has a great beach. Back then, when most tourists were pilgrims, it was relics that mattered most.
Since having a relic was a great way to boost the economic fortunes of a town or city, competition for them was fierce. The bodies of saints were cut up, sold and even stolen.
The body of St. Francis was spirited away and hidden by his friends in Assisi after his death, reportedly to prevent another city from stealing it for its church.
Over time, the Catholic Church came to regulate the trade, display and veneration of relics, putting them into three groups: First class relics are the body or fragments of the body of a saint; second class are things that a saint owned; third class are items a saint touched or that have been touched to other relics.
As it turns out, anyone can own a relic, even though the Roman Catholic Church forbids making a profit off their sale. (It’s called Simony.)
A search on eBay shows hundreds for sale such as the “rare and holy relic of Saint Mary Magdalene” ($599), the “holy papal relic of Saint Pius the tenth Pope,” ($499), and medal touched by the American Catholic saint Ann Seton—a bargain at only $9.95.
Catholics aren’t the only group known for relics, although they probably have the most.
Muslims show respect to things like the sandals or hairs from the beard of the prophet Mohammed, while Buddhists can reflect on the Buddha’s tooth and ashes.
While relics might still seem strange to me, they are meaningful to many people—like my friend Deborah Gyapong, an Ottawa-based journalist who covers national politics and the Catholic Church.
The former evangelical church member once found them to be “weird, macabre and/or superstitious.”
Today, as a relatively new Catholic, she finds that relics remind her of the “physicality of our Lord” and of the “concrete, historical reality of saints who followed Jesus, perhaps to martyrdom and who brought the Light of the Gospel wherever they lived and suffered.”
Additionally, they help her understand the “incarnational and historical reality of the mystery of Christ's life, death and resurrection, and of Christ in us, the hope of glory.”
For Father Michel Boutilier, a Jesuit priest and chaplain at St. Paul’s High School, relics help connect him with Jesus.
Relics, he says, are not objects of worship. Instead, “they point to Christ—he is the one we worship,” he says.
He is also quick to note “there is no magic in the relics”—venerating them won’t bring you good luck, like winning the lottery.
Instead, he shares, relics are vehicles of “grace that can change our lives. They don’t impart grace themselves.”
Of course, not every Christian feels this way about relics. Not even all Catholics agree about the place of relics in their faith; it can vary according to age, country and culture.
But at a time when our increasingly secular society seems to be pushing spirituality to the margins, maybe we all need tangible ways to be reminded there is more to life than things we can only touch and see—there are mysteries beyond our physical comprehension.
For some people, one of those ways are relics.