Holy Relics: honouring those transformed by Christ


Originally published in Catholic Outlook November 2012

Fr Robin Koning SJ
Fr Robin Koning SJ.

With the relic of St Francis Xavier visiting Australia at present, Fr Robin Koning SJ answers some questions about the role of relics in the Catholic Church, and looks at why this tour is an important opportunity to follow in his footsteps.

Isn’t it a bit morbid to be carrying around someone’s remains?

A relic is an object which offers a tangible and visible connection to a holy person who has died.

The practice of honouring relics is familiar to many people but may seem strange to others.

Certainly, the desire to remain connected with people who have died by honouring their remains is common to most cultures and a normal part of human life – visits to the graveside, treasuring of the ashes, keeping a lock of hair or a favourite book.

These all help us, who are embodied beings, to recall and stay connected with the reality of the person we love. This natural instinct is based on our awareness that, while the body is not the whole of our reality as human beings, it is a significant and integral part of who we are.

What’s so special about the relics of saints?

Devotion to the relics of saints is grounded in this human instinct for connection with those who have gone before, but it takes this instinct to another level, for saints are those the Church recognises as having been receptive to the grace of Christ in particularly striking ways.

In honouring their relics, our focus is not meant to be simply on the persons themselves but on the persons as having been transformed by Christ.

Thus in honouring them, we honour the One whose life, death and resurrection enabled them to live the Christian life in the transparent and heroic way they did.

At heart, the devotion is an expression of the value Catholics put on the bodily – on what is tangible and visible. This actual physical connection to a saint reminds us that these holy people were not angels, but flesh and blood (and bone!) human beings like ourselves, living out their imitation of Christ in the real world in their time and place.

Is devotion to relics more specific to certain cultures?

Devotion to relics is a venerable tradition in the Church, dating back to the earliest centuries of the Church’s life, especially in relation to the remains of martyrs.

Of course, there is no obligation for any Catholic to engage in this devotion if they do not consider it helpful for their own spiritual journey.

The Church offers a wide range of devotional practices and spiritualities, and each person will find some helpful and others less so. Cultural background and the way that death is handled in different cultures will likely be factors in this matter.

Having said that, this visit to Australia of a significant relic of St Francis Xavier provides Australia, in this Year of Grace, with a unique opportunity to come to know better this erstwhile patron of Australia.

Through this physical connection, we are invited to remember the life of this great saint and to remember how his life was transformed by grace, especially by the experience of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius.

(This is an edited extract of the original article, republished with permission of Province Express: www.express.org.au)


Year of Grace Parramatta: National Pilgrimage of Grace News Index

Sydney Archdiocese: Pilgrimage of Grace

« Return to news list