A few days ago, I visited the Treasures of the Church exposition of relics in a nearby town.
Now, I haven’t been Catholic all that long. If you had told me a few years ago that I would be visiting an exposition of Catholic relics, that my son would say an Our Father in front of an approved relic of the True Cross, that I would be deeply moved by this experience – I would not have believed you. Or I would have said that it would be better for me to perish before I could come to such a low condition.
Protestant misconceptions about relics in the Church are deep and strong. We imagined magical superstition, enough fragments of wood to build Noah’s Ark, and bones dug up from random graves and sold to the highest bidder.
Protestant friends, none of this is true. Read up on it, I promise you will be stunned. Catholic friends, here are a few things that Protestants really believe about Catholics and relics, and how I learned I was wrong.
the church makes money from relics
When Protestants think of relics, they are probably thinking that they are a giant scam by the Church to make money by fleecing the faithful. At least, that’s what I might have thought. Or that maybe they don’t do that anymore, but certainly at the time of the Reformation they would have been!
The truth is that it is absolutely, competely, and in the strongest sense illegal to sell a relic under Canon Law. Further, first and second class relics are no longer given to private individuals, as of 1994. (Canon Law Made Easy)
So if you see a relic for sale, it is not sanctioned by the Church, and is done maybe in ignorance – but given the prices you see, it’s probably worse than ignorance.
relics are fake
Another working assumption. We all know the joke, right? “If you add up all the fragments of the True Cross in the world, you’d have enough wood to build Noah’s Ark.”
Except no. Not really. In this article from the Catholic Register, you can read about Charles Rohault de Fleury, a 19th century scholar who took it upon himself to track down and measure every known relic of the cross. His conclusion?
De Fleury concluded that if all the surviving relics of the True Cross were somehow reassembled, there would not be enough lumber to crucify a man, let alone build Noah’s Ark. – Thomas J. Craughwell, NC Register, accessed 12/14/2017
One thing that has really astonished Mark and I is the intensively scientific attitude that the Church takes toward relics. Relics have to be reliably able to be traced to their origins. Anytime the Church verifies a relic, you can be sure they have done their homework and have very good reasons to assert that the relic is what it says it is. To Protestants, young in history as we were, it seems impossible that we could ever possibly identify which wood is from the Cross, or which veil belonged to Mary.
But the Church is old. Very old. We have minutes from councils that happened in the early centuries. We have records of burials, marked graves, and astonishingly detailed histories of why certain relics are worthy of belief.
Which leads to:
relics are required
Official relics are considered to be “worthy of belief.”
But nobody has to venerate any relics. It is a completely optional practice. Not comfortable with it? Too creeped out? Just not sure what you think?
S’okay. No problem. There are many optional devotions in the Church, and this is one of them.
relics are magical
What Protestant doesn’t imagine wild, out-of-control superstition when relics come up?
“So you ask a piece of a body of a dead Christian for a favor? That’s crazy idolatry. That’s paganism. It’s magical thinking.”
The Church is very clear that, firstly, magic is forbidden. Further, here’s what the Catechism says about superstition:
Superstition is the deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes. It can even affect the worship we offer the true God, e.g., when one attributes an importance in some way magical to certain practices otherwise lawful or necessary. To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand, is to fall into superstition. – CCC Part 3, Section 2, Chapter 1
Do some Catholics fall into superstition? Doubtless they do. But it’s not ok, approved, sanctioned, or otherwise not considered a serious problem by the Church.
relics are weird
Eh, that’s subjective. I guess. Or it’s not really a misconception…I still think relics are weird. How many teeny body parts were in that room, exactly?? Hundreds. My culture is modern American and we don’t like to hang around dead bodies, amirite?? But I did not feel creeped out in the presence of the relics. I understand better now how the early Christians could stand to gather in the catacombs. These are holy men and women who are not dead, they are very much alive and are there to pray for us in a special way. Their tangible presence in relics was deeply comforting. Do you ever feel alone as you battle through the Christian life? Visit a relic. You have a friend who felt that way too, and persevered, and was by grace victorious. Now they can pray for you.
relics take away from faith in Christ
That is not my experience. No more than listening to a sermon, sharing prayer with a friend, or taking communion detracts from Christ. God appoints means, we all believe that. The Church simply has more means at her disposal than Protestants are used to.
I would challenge anyone who watched my 8-year-old son stand for several whole minutes with his hand on the case of the relic of the True Cross, then walk away with tears in his eyes, to tell me that relics detract from faith in Christ.
I’ll be writing more about the experience of visiting the Treasures of the Church exposition, but it will take me awhile to get it into words. It was a remarkable experience that touched my spirit deeply.
“Relics bring to the fore the intercessory prayer of saints (and) bring to mind the reality of the Communion of Saints and our place in that communion.” – Carl E. Olson
Treasures of the Church with Fr. Carlos Martins, C.C. This is the exposition that we attended. Fr. Carlos will travel to any parish by request. He does not charge admittance, nor does he charge anything to the parish who hosts him, not even travel costs. He does this specifically so that poorer parishes will be able to host him if they wish to.
Sacred Relics of the Church – This is Fr. Carlos’ talk that he gave at the exposition. He’s a wonderful speaker and clearly called to this mission. We bought the DVD at the exposition to share with friends and family – it includes the complete tale of St. Maria Goretti, which I had never heard in its entirety. The DVD comes with a commendation from Cardinal Burke.
Canon Law Made Easy – On Private Ownership of Relics – You guys, Canon Law Made Easy is an amazing resource. Just incredible.
Are Relics Relevant to Today’s Catholic? – Our Sunday Visitor – includes a helpful shortlist of canonical rules regarding relics.
If you liked these, you might also like Seven Things I Was Wrong About Before I was Catholic, Seven MORE Things I Was Wrong About Before I Was Catholic, Seven Things I Didn’t Lose When I Became Catholic, and my Reading List for the Catholic Convert.
And if you like those, you’ll probably also enjoy my ebook Sightings of Truth: Things I Learned on My Way to Rome. It’s a short and accessible compilation of and expansion upon all my reader favorite posts about the misconceptions that I encountered on my way home! (Psst – you can read it for free on Kindle Unlimited!)
Linked up at This Ain’t the Lyceum.