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What is a Relic?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A relic is an object of religious veneration, which may vary from the bones of a saint to an object which touched a martyr during his or her lifetime. Relics are especially common in Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, but they are also maintained by Buddhists, Muslims, and others, typically for the purpose of displaying to the faithful. For people who belong to religions which do not venerate relics, the practice of preserving relics sometimes seems a bit gruesome or macabre, especially in the case of physical remains.

Each religion has a slightly different approach to relics. In all cases, relics are kept because they are believed be of religious value. As a general rule, relics associated with prophets such as Christ are especially venerated, recognizing the importance of their owner, and relics belonging to saints are also greatly treasured. Beyond these two categories, some religions provide for the keeping of relics related to people of religious importance who were not formally granted sainthood, and for relics which are tangentially related to more sacred relics, such as handkerchiefs which have touched the bones of saints.

Typically, relics are stored in ornate containers known as reliquaries, and they are displayed to pilgrims and visitors. In some cultures, people believe that touching or seeing a relic has tremendous power, and relics are credited with spontaneous healing, sudden windfalls of wealth, and other events. In other cultures, the idea that relics are lucky or charmed is frowned upon, with people visiting relics solely for the purpose of religious contemplation, and to consider their history.

At one time, trafficking in relics was extremely common, and many pilgrims were sold unverified items which sellers claimed were things like the bones of saints, personal belongings of saints, or pieces of the True Cross. People believed that owning a relic could bring them favor or blessings, and they typically wore relics on their bodies in specially designed containers or reliquary jewelry. The Catholic Church now expressly forbids the sale of relics and related items, and many other faiths have followed suit.

Visitors to large Catholic and Orthodox churches can often see a relic on display, and sometimes churches may battle over the provenance of their relics, as is the case when two churches claim to have the body of the same martyr. Depending on the design of the reliquary, people may be able to see inside through specially placed glass panels, or they may be expected to take the word of the church on faith when it claims to have relics in its possession. In some communities, relics are taken out on parade on occasion, and sometimes exposed to the public so that people can touch or kiss the relic.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a CulturalWorld.org researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By Markerrag — On Apr 09, 2014

@Vincenzo -- most Protestants might not have anything exactly similar, but one might argue they do have things that are as revered as relics are to Catholics. Take the Bible, for example. I was taught not to write in one or treat it with any disrespect at all because it is the word of God and, as such, is sacred. Yes, it rolled off the assembly line with thousands that were identical, but it wasn't a mere book -- the Bible was regarded as something different. Something sacred and divine.

When viewed in that context, the importance of relics isn't such a hard thing to grasp.

By Vincenzo — On Apr 08, 2014

The discussion of relics is often bewildering to Protestants. Most denominations just don't have anything similar. When you come from that background, it is difficult to understand the significance of them.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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