The Objection to Relics

Panorama of Aachen downtown by Arne Hückelheim

At college I majored in Modern Languages, and after graduation I moved to what was then West Germany to teach English as a Second Language. I lived in Aachen, a beautiful, historically significant city on the Dutch/Belgian border. I had grown up in Scottsdale, in a state that was at that time not even 100 years old, and this meant that I had grown up for all intents and purposes “antiquity-free.” Living in Aachen was a delight for me. Evidence of the medieval history of the place was everywhere, from the wall that had formerly encircled the town, to the Cathedral, the “Aachener Dom,” begun by Emperor Charlemagne in the 8th century. The Cathedral was the site of the coronation of 42 kings and queens, and is the resting place of both Charlemagne and Holy Roman Emperor Otto III. I was awestruck.

Every seven years four relics are exhibited at the Aachen Cathedral. This exhibit is the object of a Catholic pilgrimage to Aachen that has been taking place since medieval times, and is still going strong – over 90,000 pilgrims took part in the year 2007. My friend Dörte (an Evangelical Protestant who later went to Brazil as a missionary) and I attended one of those exhibitions of relics at the Cathedral. I’m sure we weren’t the only Protestants there.

The exhibit was imposing, to say the least. In its collection the Cathedral purported to have a garment belonging to the Virgin Mary, swaddling clothes belonging to the Baby Jesus, St. John the Baptist’s beheading cloth, and Christ’s loincloth.

We filed past the relics in silence. Finally, egged on by my American “you-can’t-fool-me” orientation, I whispered to Dörte, “What makes them think these things are authentic?” Given to deeper thought than I, Dörte whispered back, “What makes them think it matters?”

Dörte’s question is, of course, the standard Protestant objection to relics. So you’ve got a piece of the skull of St. Ladislaus – so what? Even if the man led a holy life, that doesn’t mean that his possessions or remains take on some kind of magical properties! Even if that really is one of Mary’s garments that they exhibit every 7 years in Aachen, that’s no reason to believe that miracles might be associated with an article of clothing! Catholics are so superstitious about these things!

Like most Protestant objections to Catholic beliefs, these are correct in one way, and incorrect in another. Relics certainly do not possess magical properties. It would be superstitious to believe that they did. The Catholic Church has, however, never taught that they possess magical properties. Catholics don’t believe in magic – what Catholics believe is the text of Acts 19:11-12:

God was performing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were even carried from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out.

I was familiar with Acts 19:11-12 when I was a Protestant, and to be honest it was one of my least favorite Bible passages. My thought process ran along the lines of “Lord, if You wanted to be properly understood, why didn’t You express Yourself more clearly in Scripture!” That verse just sounded so Catholic! As a card-carrying Evangelical, I was really, really uncomfortable with the notion that handkerchiefs laid upon Paul’s body and then taken to sick people could cure them. I didn’t even try to think this through. The passage contradicted my theology, and I had never heard anyone preach on it, so I did my best to put it out of my mind. I had no problem with the idea that God could use St. Paul to bring a man back to life (Acts 20) – Evangelicals believe that God can and does heal people. Had you told me, though, that the bones of the dead St. Paul could have been used by God to bring someone back to life, I would have told you that that was impossible – God just doesn’t work that way! You see, there was an Old Testament passage of Scripture with which I was unfamiliar:

As they were burying a man, behold, they saw a marauding band; and they cast the man into the grave of Elisha. And when the man touched the bones of Elisha he revived and stood up on his feet.

Acts 19:11-12 deals with what Catholics would call third-class relics, handkerchiefs and aprons touched to the body of a saint. The above text from 2 Kings 13:21 concerns first-class relics: the bones of the Old Testament prophet Elisha. Coming into contact with those bones restored life to the body of a dead man, exactly the kind of thing Catholics claim when they discuss relics. Yet another passage in Acts, chapter 5 verses 15-16, deals with second-class relics:

… they even carried the sick out into the streets and laid them on cots and pallets, so that when Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on any one of them Also the people from the cities in the vicinity of Jerusalem were coming together, bringing people who were sick or afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all being healed.

So, there are three passages, one from the Old Testament and two from the New, providing us with the Biblical basis for the Catholic veneration of relics. That’s at least two more verses than I had for some of my Protestant beliefs, and yet I KNEW that the doctrine of relics was unbiblical.

Catholic teaching concerning relics is not only Biblical – it is also demonstrable in post-apostolic Christian writings. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, was martyred for the Faith in the mid 2nd century. After burning failed to kill him, he was stabbed to death. His fellow Christians then asked for his body, but according to the Martyrdom of Polycarp, Satan opposed this:

So he (Satan) put forward Nicetes, the father of Herod and brother of Alce, to plead with the magistrate not to give up his body, ‘lest,’ so it was said, ‘they should abandon the Crucified One and begin to worship this man’–this being done at the instigation and urgent entreaty of the Jews, who also watched when we were about to take it from the fire, not knowing that it will be impossible for us either to forsake at any time the Christ who suffered for the salvation of the whole world of those that are saved–suffered though faultless for sinners–nor to worship any other. For Him, being the Son of God, we adore, but the martyrs as disciples and imitators of the Lord we cherish as they deserve for their matchless affection towards their own King and Teacher. May it be our lot also to be found partakers and fellow-disciples with them.

Thus the body of Polycarp was burned.

And so we afterwards took up his bones 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 ourselves together, as we are able, in gladness and joy, and to celebrate the birth-day of his martyrdom for the commemoration of those that have already fought in the contest, and for the training and preparation of those that shall do so hereafter.

Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, participating in pretty standard-issue Protestant sanitizing of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers (lest Protestant sensibilities be disturbed by what the early Christians actually wrote!), takes pains to explain that these Christians simply wanted to give poor old Polycarp a Christian burial:

They nevertheless collected his bones and as much of his remains as possible, and caused them to be decently interred.

Whereas the Martyrdom of Polycarp specifically states:

But the jealous and envious Evil One, the adversary of the family of the righteous, having seen the greatness of his martyrdom and his blameless life from the beginning, and how he was crowned with the crown of immortality and had won a reward which none could gainsay, managed that not even his poor body should be taken away by us, although many desired to do this and to touch his holy flesh.

In other words, these Christians recognized Polycarp as a saint. They “took up his bones which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place” where they could gather together “to celebrate the birth-day of his martyrdom…” These Christians did not merely want to ensure that St. Polycarp was properly buried; they desired to possess his relics.

St. Augustine, a fifth-century Catholic bishop whose word does carry some weight with Protestants, is another witness to the early Christian interest in relics. In his City of God he gives an eloquent description of miracles associated with the relics of saints, including one such miracle which he himself witnessed:

For even now miracles are wrought in the name of Christ, whether by His sacraments or by the prayers or relics of His saints….

The miracle which was wrought at Milan when I was there, and by which a blind man was restored to sight, could come to the knowledge of many; for not only is the city a large one, but also the emperor was there at the time, and the occurrence was witnessed by an immense concourse of people that had gathered to the bodies of the martyrs Protasius and Gervasius, which had long lain concealed and unknown, but were now made known to the bishop Ambrose in a dream, and discovered by him. By virtue of these remains the darkness of that blind man was scattered, and he saw the light of day….

When the bishop Projectus was bringing the relics of the most glorious martyr Stephen to the waters of Tibilis, a great concourse of people came to meet him at the shrine. There a blind woman entreated that she might be led to the bishop who was carrying the relics. He gave her the flowers he was carrying. She took them to her eyes, and forthwith saw. Those who were present were astounded, while she, with every expression of joy, preceded them, pursuing her way without further need of a guide.

Lucillus bishop of Sinita, in the neighborhood of the colonial town of Hippo, was carrying in procession some relics of the same martyr, which had been deposited in the castle of Sinita. A fistula under which he had long labored, and which his private physician was watching an opportunity to cut, was suddenly cured by the mere carrying of that sacred fardel- at least, afterwards there was no trace of it in his body.

Eucharius, a Spanish priest, residing at Calama, was for a long time a sufferer from stone. By the relics of the same martyr, which the bishop Possidius brought him, he was cured.

St. Augustine then delivers a defense of the Catholic doctrine of the communion of saints, and of relics in particular, explaining that miracles connected with relics of the saints are a sign to us that the Resurrection is for real:

To what do these miracles witness, but to this faith which preaches Christ risen in the flesh, and ascended with the same into heaven? For the martyrs themselves were martyrs, that is to say, witnesses of this faith, drawing upon themselves by their testimony the hatred of the world, and conquering the world not by resisting it, but by dying. For this faith they died, and can now ask their benefits from the Lord in whose name they were slain. For this faith their marvelous constancy was exercised, so that in these miracles great power was manifested as the result. For if the resurrection of the flesh to eternal life had not taken place in Christ, and were not to be accomplished in His people, as predicted by Christ, or by the prophets who foretold that Christ was to come, why do the martyrs possess such power? For whether God Himself wrought these miracles by that wonderful manner of working by which, though Himself eternal, He produces effects in time; or whether He wrought them by servants, and if so, whether He made use of the spirits of martyrs as He uses men who are still in the body, or effects all these marvel by means of angels, over whom He exerts an invisible, immutable, incorporeal sway, so that what is said to be done by the martyrs is done not by their operation, but only by their prayer and request; or whether, finally, some things are done in one way, others in another, and so that man cannot comprehend them- nevertheless these miracles attest this faith which preaches the resurrection of the flesh to eternal life. (City of God , XXII, 8)

In other words, we have no tangible proof of the doctrine of the Resurrection. However, if the doctrine of the Resurrection is all that we say it is (i.e., our blessed hope!), and if the doctrine of the communion of saints is all that we say it is (i.e., the saints are not dead, but ALIVE!), then why would we be surprised that miracles occur in connection with their relics?

So there we have Biblical backing, as well as attestation to belief in the doctrine by the early Christians. But as a Protestant, I thought relics were a bunch of hooey. Smart, savvy, 21st-century Protestant that I was, I reserved the right to exclude from my theology whatever I lacked the faith to believe….

On the memorial of St. Jerome

Deo omnis gloria!

  1. Great summary of the theology of relics, and the biblical basis for them. I’ve always had a special devotion to relics (I studied in Rome for a semester, and it was basically Heaven for me), and it is nice to have the theology of relics all contained in one place.

    Thank you

    • Thanks, Matthew! And you have a great blog – post OFTEN! 🙂

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