Q. What place do relics have in the life of a Catholic? Do we venerate them or simply honor them? Perhaps you can explain the difference.
A. While flipping through the pages of a friend’s baby book that his mother had compiled about his life, I was shocked to find a page with some of his hair taped into it. Asking in horror what it was doing there, I was informed it was a memento from his first haircut. Several years ago, more than ten years after my grandfather had died, I helped my grandmother sort through his side of the closet to package up his clothes to send to charity. However, my grandmother decided to keep his favorite belt and a shirt that still carried the faint aroma of his aftershave.
We are sensate beings. We appreciate tangible reminders of things. When people have moved on, grown up or passed away, it is comforting to keep something that will help us feel connected to them. It is this natural human phenomenon that is behind the ancient custom of the Church keeping relics of the saints. A fragment of bone, an eyelash, glasses or the journals they kept, all of these things give us the sense that they are still with us. For Catholics, the presence of relics is a physical reminder here that we belong in the Communion of Saints – those men and women who intercede for us now so that one day we may join them in heaven. Just as my grandmother still kisses the picture of her beloved husband every time we leave the cemetery, there are numerous ways that we will show affection to the faithful departed by venerating what we have left from them. Be it a kiss, a touch, a glance or a profound bow, when we venerate these relics, we are doing more than merely respecting their existence. We are demonstrating a love for the person they represent, and implicitly, a hope that one day, we will no longer need a relic, for we will have joined them in eternal life.