As old as the Church

Why does the Catholic Church collect relics, and why do the faithful venerate them?

To answer that question, let’s look at it first from a nonreligious perspective. All of us know or have heard of parents who saved a lock of their baby’s hair or some of a child’s baby teeth. Certainly all of us have in our possession jewelry, furniture or some other item that was dear to our parents, our grandparents or another member of the family.

Bringing out Grandma’s china for Christmas dinner stirs the emotions and makes us feel connected once again to someone we loved but who has since died. Relics work in the same way, but more intensely because in the case of relics of the saints, the connection is not only to someone we love but to someone who was genuinely holy.

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.