Veneration of Relics

When our loved ones pass away we often cherish something special which they wore or used and may even ensure that it is passed on to future generations.

We struggle to part with their personal belongings because they remind us of the relationship we had with our loved ones and they can motivate us to imitate them or to live better lives.

Through the centuries there is a history of veneration of relics of saints whose heroic sanctity inspires us. Relics include the physical remains of saints as well as items belonging to them, worn or used by them and also items which touched their bodies or tombs.

Sometimes bodily parts were placed in a reliquary — a box, a locket and later a glass case for veneration. We recall the times when the relics of St Therese of Lisieux were brought to different countries for veneration, when the remains of St Peter Chanel were returned to Aotearoa New Zealand and more recently when the remains of Pier Georgio Frassati were brought to Sydney for World Youth Day.

The use of relics is mentioned a few times in Scripture. In 2 Kings 2:13-14 Elisha picked up Elijah’s cloak, struck the water of the Jordan and it divided so that he could cross. In Acts 19:11-12 we read how God was performing unusual miracles through Paul. When handkerchiefs and aprons were carried away from his body to those who were ill, their diseases left them.

In Matthew's Gospel the disciples

Crossed the lake and came to Gennesaret where the people recognised Jesus so they sent for the sick people in all the surrounding country and brought them to Jesus. They begged him to let those who were ill at least touch the edge of his cloak; and all who touched it were made well.

Matthew 14:34-36

Venerating martyrs’ relics grew as a liturgical practice over the centuries. Unfortunately, at times, abuses crept in. This led the church to take stringent measures to ensure the authenticity, proper veneration and preservation of relics.

The Second Vatican Council states: ‘The saints have been traditionally honoured in the Church and their authentic relics and images held in veneration.’ Sacrosanctum Concilium No.111.

The Missale Romanum re-affirms the validity of placing the relics of the Saints under an altar that is to be dedicated, even when not those of Martyrs. Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani, 302.

As the Eucharist is celebrated we are reminded by the relics of the fidelity of saints who modelled their lives on Jesus Christ. Their virtuous lives inspire us to seek their intercession in obtaining favours from God, while giving the glory to God.

The veneration of relics of the saints is a profession of belief in several doctrines of the Catholic Faith:

  1. The belief in everlasting ljfe for those who have obediently witnessed to Christ and His Holy Gospel here on earth;
  2. The truth of the resurrection of the body for all persons on the last day;
  3. The doctrine of the splendour of the human body and the respect which all should show toward the bodies of both the living and the deceased;
  4. The belief in the special intercessory power which the saints enjoy in heaven because of their intimate relationship with Christ the King; and
  5. The truth of our closeness to the saints because of our connection in the communion of saints.

W. Saunders Church Teaching on Relics. © 2003 Arlington Catholic Herald

In our times popular devotion to Mary MacKillop is growing steadily. Numerous people are venerating her relics and are joining in Novenas for favours through her intercession. People visit her tomb at Mount Street, North Sydney every day and many experience healing and/or comfort.

On arrival in Australia the World Youth Day Cross was taken straight to Mary MacKillop Memorial Chapel and was laid on the tomb as the journey was placed under the patronage of Mary MacKillop. Thousands of young people from around the world visited the tomb and prayed through her intercession for their needs. Many touching stories are recorded by Pilgrims of favours granted and moments of personal healing experienced. Still others tell of the opportunity it provided for a deep spiritual encounter with their God.

When we venerate the relics of saintly persons we are reminded of their heroic virtue and are inspired by the way they lived their ordinary lives in an extra-ordinary faithfilled way. This inspiration encourages us to place our trust in God as we strive to live the Christian life.

Rita Flynn rsj

The Relics of the Saints

236. The Second Vatican Council recalls that “the Saints have been traditionally honoured in the Church, and their authentic relics and images held in veneration.” The term “relics of the Saints “principally signjfies the bodies — or notable parts of the bodies — of the Saints who, as distinguished members of Christ‘s mystical body and as Temples of the Holy Spirit (cf 1 Cor 3, 16; 6, 19; 2 Cor 6, 16) in virtue of their heroic sanctity, now dwell in Heaven, but who once lived on earth. Objects which belonged to the Saints, such as personal objects, clothes and manuscripts are also considered relics, as are objects which have touched their bodies or tombs such as oils, cloths and images.

Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments 2002

The mortal remains of Mary MacKillop are venerated at the Mary MacKillop Memorial Chapel, North Sydney.

Some items of clothing worn by Mary MacKillop; some books she used; some letters she wrote and some material which touched her coffin are part of the spiritual patrimony of the Sisters of St Joseph.