Left Behind is a popular series of books written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Evangelical Protestants brilliantly capitalizing on their “pre-trib” version of the “rapture theory.” This article is not about those books, but about the Catholic custom of venerating relics.
“Then why name the article that way?” you may ask. There are three reasons for doing so. The first is based on strategy: to get Protestants who like those books to read an article in a Catholic magazine. The second is based on etymology, and that explanation will come in the next paragraph. The third is a doctrinal reason and is related to the plot of the original Left Behind book. It will not be given until the end of the article.
The etymological reason for the name of this article will appear obvious to those who review Merriam-Webster’s dictionary entry under the word relic :
Etymology: Middle English relik, from Old French relique, from Medieval Latin reliquia, from Late Latin reliquiae, plural, remains of a martyr, from Latin, remains, from relinquere , to leave behind — more at relinquish
Date: 13th century
- a: an object esteemed and venerated because of association with a saint or martyr
b: souvenir, memento
- plural : remains, corpse
- a survivor or remnant left after decay, disintegration, or disappearance
- a trace of some past or outmoded practice, custom, or belief
- a: an object esteemed and venerated because of association with a saint or martyr
So, we see that relinquere means, in Latin, to “leave behind.” The relics of the saints — Webster’s definition 1a — are so named because they were “left behind” by the saint’s soul as he took his flight to Heaven. It is the Catholic practice of venerating these relics that we seek to defend in this article.
In the last issue of the Housetops , Brother David Mary wrote an article on St. John Damascene and his historic doctrinal defense of holy icons. The issue of relics is dogmatically related to that of icons. The reason for this is that both of them derive their usefulness from what Brother David called “the Incarnational nature of Christianity.” In his Defense of Holy Images , St. John put it this way:
“Of old, God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was never depicted. Now, however, when God is seen clothed in flesh, and conversing with men (Bar. 3:38), I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter85 I honor all matter besides, and venerate it. Through it, filled, as it were, with a divine power and grace, my salvation has come to me. Was not the thrice happy and thrice blessed wood of the Cross matter? Was not the sacred and holy mountain of Calvary matter? What of the life-giving rock, the Holy Sepulchre, the source of our resurrection: was it not matter? Is not the most holy book of the Gospels matter? Is not the blessed table matter which gives us the Bread of Life? Are not the gold and silver matter, out of which crosses and altar-plates and chalices are made? And before all these things, is not the Body and Blood of Our Lord matter? Either do away with the veneration and worship due to all these things, or submit to the tradition of the Church in the worship of images, honoring God and His friends, and following in this the grace of the Holy Spirit. Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable.”
It is no surprise that in his other masterpiece, On the Orthodox Faith , this eighth-century apologist gives us a beautiful defense of saints’ relics based on the fact that “through their minds God has also dwelt in their bodies.”
What’s the common thread uniting icons and relics? It is that God has sanctified stuff — matter, as we call it — and has chosen to give us divine assistance through its use. In his defense of relics, St. John goes on to cite the same passage from First Corinthians that the fathers of the Council of Trent did, in this excerpt from the Council’s 25th session: “the holy bodies of holy martyrs and of others now living with Christ — which bodies were the living members of Christ and ‘the temple of the Holy Ghost’ (I Cor., vi, 19), and which are by Him to be raised to eternal life and to be glorified, are to be venerated by the faithful85”
Like St. John, who points out miracles worked through the relics of the saints, the Council goes on to state a reason why the relics are to be honored: “for through these [bodies] many benefits are bestowed by God on men85” The fact that relics were used by God to bestow benefits on men is clearly to be seen in the inspired history of the Bible.
Right in the Bible
In the Fourth Book of Kings (or Second Kings, in Protestant Bibles), the story is told of Elias (Elijah) the Prophet being taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot. Eliseus (Elisha) the Prophet, who inherited his spiritual father’s “double spirit” — the legal prerogatives of firstborn son — took up the mantle of Elias which had fallen in the violence of the whirlwind. “And he took up the mantle of Elias, that fell from him: and going back, he stood on the bank of the Jordan; and he struck the waters with the mantle of Elias, that had fallen from him, and they were not divided. And he said: Where is now the God of Elias? And he struck the waters, and they were divided hither and thither, and Eliseus passed over” (4 Kings 2:13-14 / KJV: 2 Kings 2:13-14 ).
Elias had, previous to his being taken up, worked the same miracle using his mantle (2:8). This is how the two prophets ended up on the side of the Jordan they were on when the fiery chariot came. After Elias’ prodigious departure, the relic of his mantle became Eliseus’ “passport” to get back to the other side. Here is a concrete instance of God bestowing a benefit on men through a relic.
The next Old Testament relic apologetic also involves Eliseus. Here, the relic is not a garment, but the prophet’s dead body: “And Eliseus died, and they buried him. And the rovers from Moab came into the land the same year. And some that were burying a man, saw the rovers, and cast the body into the sepulchre of Eliseus. And when it had touched the bones of Eliseus, the man came to life and stood upon his feet” (4 [KJV:2] Kings 13:20-21).
There is no denying that the inspired history relates a cause-and-effect relationship between the dead man’s body touching the corpse of Eliseus, and that man’s resurrection.
Before proceeding to the New Testament, we cite one more B.C. proof: God chose to work many and great miracles through the Ark of the Covenant. What did the Ark contain? Relics. In it were found the tablets of the Law, the Rod of Aaron, and a jar of manna from the Israelites’ wandering in the desert.
In the Gospels
St. Matthew (9:21ff.) and St. Mark (5:25ff.) both narrate the instance of Our Lord’s healing the woman with an issue of blood. St. Mark’s account being more detailed, we give it here:
“And a woman who was under an issue of blood twelve years, and had suffered many things from many physicians; and had spent all that she had, and was nothing the better, but rather worse, when she had heard of Jesus, came in the crowd behind him, and touched his garment. For she said: If I shall touch but his garment, I shall be whole. And forthwith the fountain of her blood was dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of the evil. And immediately Jesus knowing in himself the virtue that had proceeded from him, turning to the multitude, said: Who hath touched my garments? And his disciples said to him: Thou seest the multitude thronging thee, and sayest thou who hath touched me? And he looked about to see her who had done this. But the woman fearing and trembling, knowing what was done in her, came and fell down before him, and told him all the truth. And he said to her: Daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole: go in peace, and be thou whole of thy disease” (Mark 5:25-34).
In his Great Commentary , Cornelius E0 Lapide remarks on this passage: “There is here an example and proof of the use and efficacy of holy relics. For such was the hem or fringe of Christ which healed her that had the issue of blood. Calvin replies that the woman was superstitious, and that a certain amount of superstition was mingled with what she did. But Christ and Mark refute this; for they ascribe her healing not to superstition, but to her faith, and commend her for it. For in verse 30 it says, And immediately Jesus knowing in himself the virtue that had proceeded from him , i.e., from His fringe. And verse 34, Daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole, go in peace. Rightly says St. Hilary, ‘Just as the Author of nature has given to a magnet the power of attracting iron, so did Christ give to His garment the power of healing her who touched in faith.’ ”
Acts of the Apostles
Having been given the great mandate to preach the Gospel to all nations, “the Lord working withal, and confirming the word with signs that followed” (Mk. 16:20), the Apostles also give us examples of the miraculous use of relics.
“And the multitude of men and women who believed in the Lord was more increased: Insomuch that they brought forth the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and couches, that, when Peter came, his shadow at the least might overshadow any of them and they might be delivered from their infirmities ” (Acts 5:13-14).
In this passage, miracles are worked through St. Paul: “And God wrought by the hand of Paul more than common miracles. So that even there were brought from his body to the sick, handkerchiefs and aprons: and the diseases departed from them: and the wicked spirits went out of them” (Acts 19:11-12).
This passage not only provides us with an example of the beneficial use of relics, but also gives a defense against an objection. There were Protestants who were well-read enough in the scholastic theologians, like St. Thomas Aquinas, to try to put them at variance with the teachings of the Church at the Council of Trent. They attempted to show that, while St. Thomas had used very “cautious” language — speaking of miracles being worked “in the presence” of the relics of the saints — the Council went further in giving them almost magical powers. We have already cited the passage: “through which [relics] many benefits were bestowed on mankind.” To these Protestants, the “through which” attributed an intrinsic power to the thing , whereas St. Thomas’ “in the presence of” did not. The heretics were grasping at straws. Saying that God worked miracles “through” relics no more attributes to them magical powers than does saying He did so “by the hand of Paul.”
This issue of God working “through” or “by” things will be addressed later.
A Constant Witness
The nineteenth-century liberal Protestant, Harnack, lamented the profusion of patristic evidence of the use of relics: “Most offensive was the worship of relics. It flourished to its greatest extent as early as the fourth century and no Church doctor of repute restricted it. All of them rather, even the Cappadocians, countenanced it. The numerous miracles which were wrought by bones and relics seemed to confirm their worship. The Church, therefore, would not give up the practice, although a violent attack was made upon it by a few cultured heathens and besides by the Manichaeans” (Harnack, History of Dogma , tr., IV, 313).
Here are a few examples of the kind of patristic proof of veneration for relics that disturbed poor Harnack:
Martyrium Polycarpi (ca. 155): (This is a letter of the Church of Smyrna describing the martyrdom of their bishop, St. Polycarp.) “The centurion then, seeing the strife excited by the Jews, placed the body in the midst of the fire, and consumed it. Accordingly, we afterwards took up his bones, as being more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, whither, being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps.”
St. Gregory of Nyssa (+ca . 386): Speaking of the forty holy martyrs whose bodies were burned, he says “their ashes and all that the fire had spared have been so distributed throughout the world that almost every province has had its share of the blessing. I also myself have a portion of this holy gift and I have laid the bodies of my parents beside the ashes of these warriors, that in the hour of the resurrection they may be awakened together with these highly privileged comrades” (P. G., XLVI, 764).
St. Ambrose (+397): “God favoured us, for even the clergy were afraid who were bidden to clear away the earth from the spot before the chancel screen of SS. Felix and Nabor. I found the fitting signs, and on bringing in some on whom hands were to be laid, the power of the holy martyrs became so manifest, that even whilst I was still silent, one was seized and thrown prostrate at the holy burial-place. We found two men of marvellous stature, such as those of ancient days. All the bones were perfect, and there was much blood. During the whole of those two days there was an enormous concourse of people. Briefly we arranged the whole in order, and as evening was now coming on, transferred them to the basilica of Fausta, where watch was kept during the night, and some received the laying on of hands. On the following day we translated the relics to the basilica called Ambrosian” (Letter XXII:2-3).
Saint Ambrose is noteworthy for finding the relics of two pairs of martyrs: SS. Felix and Nabor, just described, and SS. Gervaise and Protaise, described by St. Augustine in the passage soon to be cited from The City of God .
Apostolic Constitutions (ca. 400): “Wherefore, of those that live with God, even their very relics are not without honour. For even Elisha the prophet, after he was fallen asleep, raised up a dead man who was slain by the pirates of Syria. For his body touched the bones of Elisha, and he arose and revived. Now this would not have happened unless the body of Elisha were holy” (VI:30).
St. Jerome (+420): “We do not worship, we do not adore [ non colimus, non adoramus ], for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the Creator, but we venerate [ honoramus ] the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore Him whose martyrs they are” ( Ad Riparium , i, P. L., XXII, 907).
St. Augustine (+430): “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” ( The City of God XXII, 8).
In that same book (i.e., chapter ) of The City of God , St. Augustine enthusiastically describes numerous miracles worked through the relics of St. Stephen, miracles which Augustine himself had witnessed (see Housetops # 54, pg. 32ff.).
God chooses to act through corporeal things to sanctify our souls and our bodies, which become, by grace, temples of the Holy Ghost. The fact that He chooses to operate in this manner is seen in the Bible, as we have shown. It is testified by history, too, as we have also shown. Some non-Catholics may be confused about this seeming over-emphasis on stuff . After all, the true adorers of God will worship Him “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23) and “the flesh profiteth nothing” (John 6:64). But if Protestants consistently applied their bad interpretation of these passages, they would deny their own human natures, as well as the reality of the Redemption and Incarnation, just as many of the early Gnostic heretics did and today’s Christian Scientists still do. God, by nature, is incapable of suffering. When He took flesh, He could suffer in it. He did, and that is precisely how we were redeemed. His flesh certainly profits something: both on the Cross and in the Eucharist.
Still, a Protestant of good will may ask why there is such an emphasis on matter in this devotion to relics. We propose a couple of explanations. The first is that, since we are creatures of body and soul, God works with our nature as He made it. He deals with angels as angels; He deals with men as men.
The second reason is this: God works through secondary causes. He has chosen to deal with each of us through the agencies of other creatures. This is so obvious that many people miss it, e.g., those Protestants who have the “just Jesus and me” attitude. They don’t need a church, sacraments, the priesthood, etc. God just goes right to them, and they go right to God. Silly, presumptuous, proud, and fundamentally anti-Christian.
Here is a miniscule listing of ways God approaches us through secondary causes:
The Bible. It’s not God. It’s just a creature, yet it is infallible, inerrant, etc., attributes that are only proper to God, but which He chose to impart to a creature so that, through it, He could impart knowledge of Himself to us.
The Apostles and their preaching. He sent the Apostles to “teach all nations.” Their preaching produced children of God. St. Paul was so confident of the efficacy of his own office, that he told the Corinthians: “I became all things to all men, that I might save all ” (I Cor. 9:22). It’s Jesus who saves, but He does it through Paul.
Angels. Both Old and New Testaments are full of stories of angelic visitations to men. These “ministering spirits” (Heb. 1:14) were chosen by God to be media between Himself and us.
Our Lord’s Sacred Humanity. We have already pointed out that Jesus was God redeeming us in the Flesh. A spirit cannot have nails driven through its hands and feet. Our salvation would not have been won had there been no assuming of our nature, matter included. Not only His Redemption, but His preaching, His example, His meritorious sufferings endured throughout His entire earthly sojourn: All that He accomplished “for us men and our salvation,” He did in human Flesh. St. Matthew begins his account of the Sermon on the Mount thus: “And opening his mouth he taught them85” The all-holy Trinity could have communicated by an inner locution to all those gathered, but Divine Wisdom chose to speak through the mouth of a Man, using vocal chords formed in the womb of the Virgin Mary, to have those sound waves pass through the air He created and reverberate in the material eardrums of the assembled multitude, and thus to be “heard” as spirits cannot be. 1
He even used dirt and spittle to cure the blind man in John 9, teaching us that His sovereign Divine Majesty can and does and will cure men through material means.
Since it is common in the more vulgar attacks against relics that the subject of fake relics comes up, it would be appropriate to address this subject briefly. There is a principle of sound reason which all sane men accept: abusus non tollit usus (“abuse does not destroy use”). In other words, just because something can be abused does not mean that it has no legitimate use. Some policemen are corrupt and abusive, but this is not an apologetic for anarchy. Most politicians are evil, yet the civil power has a place in maintaining order in the world. The Bible gets misinterpreted by heretics all the time (see 2 Pet. 3:16), yet we don’t throw it away. Some parents beat their children, yet the institution of parenthood should not for that reason be abolished. Such examples could be multiplied at length.
So, if four different churches in the world each claim to have the head of St. John the Baptist, or if there end up being ten arms of St. Paphnutius, what does that prove? Either that some people made honest mistakes or (more likely) that evil men profiteered from the piety of others. Cassian relates that in his own fourth century there were monks who stole relics using the force of arms. All this proves is that there are sinners in the Church, but we already knew that.
The Church has, in her various codes of law (including the reforms of the Council of Trent) sought to curb such abuses as trafficking in false relics. But why should we waste more time on this? God has shown that the proper use of relics pleases Him by granting miracles through them. Those for whom that is not sufficient deserve Hell.
At the beginning of the article, we promised a third reason why we chose the name “Left Behind.” We said that it is a doctrinal reason, and one related to the plot of the original Left Behind book. St. Paul told the Thessalonians that “the Lord himself shall come down from heaven with commandment and with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God: and the dead who are in Christ shall rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, shall be taken up together with them in the clouds to meet Christ, into the air: and so shall we be always with the Lord” (I Thess. 14-16). This is one of the proof-texts of the silly rapture theory that Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins hold and that forms the foundation of their books. What St. Paul is actually speaking of is the doctrine we profess in the Creed: “I believe in . . . the resurrection of the body.”
When that happens, all the relics of all the saints will be reunited to their souls in perfect integrity and immortality. Then God will honor those relics with more honor than any human being is capable of giving them. He will glorify them in Heaven and make them to rule with Him.
In his poem “Resurrection,” Father Feeney put it this way:
Albeit our interval under earth
Must needs much longer last,
Let there be always ready the roll
Of drums and the trumpet blast.
With bones ablaze and flesh aflash
And hair set flying free,
So shall I come to you, loved ones,
So shall you come to me.
1 We should point out that, even if God chose to speak to them via an inner locution, He still would have been using the created medium of language, a creature standing between the human soul and God.