Thursday, August 30, 2012

Catholic Relics Trade on Superstitions

Centuries ago, people actually believed that the bones of some dead religious figure could somehow work miracles.  The corpses and body parts were paraded during the Black Death and other calamities in hopes of evoking some kind of divine protection.

The rescued blood of John Paul II
Amazingly, such relics still abound in the Roman Catholic faith where a drop of the blood of Pope John Paul II carries special significance.  The “precious” reminder of the popular leader was stolen recently and then quickly recovered from some reeds and grass near the railway station in the seaside town of Marina di Cerveteri, Italy.  The container had been tossed there by the thieves who planned to come back and retrieve it.

The whole episode exposed the macabre side of the Catholic world, a portion increasingly being exploited on the internet and e-bay, where relics are being bought and sold on a regular basis.  Most are forgeries, but that’s has never deterred the gullible faithful.

The whole idea of relics having some special power comes from a Biblical account of ill people being cured by visiting the grave of the famed prophet Elisha.   It was encapsulated into Catholic thinking by such leaders as Cyril, of Jerusalem, who wrote in the fourth century that “a certain power dwelt in the body of the saint, even when the soul had departed from it; just as it was the instrument of the soul during life, so the power passed permanently into it.”

Writing some 900 years later, Thomas Aquinas said relics should be venerated because “since we venerate the saints, we must also show reverence for their relics.” 

Although Protestants rejected relics, the Roman Catholic Church countered with the belief that “God grants many benefits to mankind through the sacred bodies of the martyrs.” Relics are actually graded: first class, which refers to such as a part of a holy person’s body, (such as bone, skin, blood and hair); second class, which includes items closely associated with the saint (such as his or her clothing, other personal effects); and third class, which refers to objects he or she has touched or held.

Catholics continue to venerate relics because they supposedly perform miracles and serve as a reminder of the sainted person’s life.  They also link the living to the death, at least in the mind of the faithful.

A relic of St. Roch, which supposedly heals plague victims
A more recent apologist said on line that the efficacy of relics proved that humans have a special aura so far undetected by medical science.  If true, then do the bones work on nonbelievers, like Buddhists and Hindus?  If so, why are pharmacies stocked with various medicines a piece of cherished bone would provide a cure?  If false, then bones are nothing more than placebos with all the success of a sugar pill.

The mere idea that relics have power guarantees abuses.  During the sack of Constantinople, for example, crusading knights uncovered enough heads of John the Baptist to create an army along with milk from the Virgin Mary that sustained Jesus, the feather of an angel and the like.  Even today, towns in Europe compete for sacred relics as if possession of a "holy" item somehow would induce a deity to do anything.

The whole concept is both disturbing and nauseating.

I was introduced to the relic business when attending a conference.  Two colleagues and I stumbled into the shrine of Elizabeth Seton in Emmitsburg, Maryland.  Seton, the first American saint, died in 1821 after founding American Sisters of Charity, the initial American sisterhood.

In the gift shop, we found snippets of Seton’s finger bones for sale.  We left immediately.  Even the Roman Catholic man with us was appalled.

Coming face to face with enduring superstition can be shocking.

Yet, it remains an integral part of faith.  Every Catholic Church contains the bone of a saint.  It is usually placed in the altar, a reminder of the origins of the church when dead bodies where kept on the altar and, amazing as its sounds, actually “fed” during services.

Author Peter Manseau examined the role of relics in his 2011 book Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead

"Relics have been there, more or less, since the beginning," he wrote in the introduction. "Though they have become embarrassing reminders of the dark ages of faith to many progressive believers, the fact is that no religion, no matter how forward thinking its members consider themselves today, has been untouched by some sort of relic veneration in its past."

Unfortunately, not one of the bones, drops of blood or miraculously preserved robes of Jesus have any value anyway.

As one skeptic noted back in the 1500s to pilgrims on their way to the Shrine of Thomas Becket, the martyred archbishop of Canterbury, “if a bone was so powerful, why not his dung?”

Actually, it’s all superstitious crap; some of it, like the vial of Pope John Paul's blood, is simply worth more on the open market.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at


  1. Satan has deceived the whole world into believing in a god of hate and revenge (Satan). God is precise: It is a woman Rev 12 that delivers the true word John1:1, Rev 12:5, Rev 12:13 who restores Acts 3:21 all things to prepare a people. Not one child of God will be put in a hell fire no matter what their sins. No one will go to a purgatory. It never entered the heart or mind of God to ever do such a thing Jer 7:31, Jer 19:5 and this is proven by the word to the whole world as a witness at . Be a workman; gather all evidence before making a judgment.