About Relics

Quick Page Shortcuts:

Types of Relics:

Traditionally relics are categorized into three classes, First, Second, and Third.  There is, however, no fixed rubric within Canon Law regarding the classes of relics. Instead, Canon Law and other norms issues by the Vatican tend to focus on the concession and handling of what would be considered First or Second Class relics.  In 1994 new norms regarding the concession of relics were issued which greatly reduced the laity’s access to First and Second class relics (Notitiae 30/1994, 349-350).  These restrictions on distribution have been tightened further since the issuance of these norms.

First Class Relics:

These are relics associated with the life and Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, such as the True Cross and Holy Shroud.  They also include the physical remains of the saints such as bones, flesh, and hair. 

 

Second Class Relics:

These are relics used or owned by the saint during their life or in death.  They may include pieces of clothing and items such as their coffin/tomb used in their burial.

 

Third Class Relics:

These items which have been touched to First or Second Class relics or by the saint themselves while living.  In many cases these are pieces of cloth or paper.  These relics are sometimes referred to as “ex indumentis” which technically translated means from the clothing.

First and second class relics were typically distributed as small pieces sealed in a container called a theca.  The theca was tied with a red thread, red spanish wax, and imprinted with the seal of the one preparing the relic.  These were usually produced and sealed by a bishop, leader of a religious order, or postulator for the cause canonization.  In addition to small metal thecae, second class relics were often sealed in paper reliquaries as an inexpensive way of raising awareness of the causes for canonization.  Today, most of the paper reliquaries produced contain only third class relics.

Larger pieces of a relics also exist and are at various shrines across the world.  These large relics are often encased in ornate reliquaries covered with precious metals and stones.

Common Latin Descriptions for the Source of Relics:

 

In the vast majority of cases Latin is used on the authentic document and label on the reliquary housing the actual relic.  The following are common Latin descriptions for the source/type of relic.

  • DNJC / Domini Nostri Jesu Christi: Our Lord Jesus Christ

  • BVM, BMV, Beatae Mariae Virginis: Blessed Virgin Mary

  • ex bacula: from the staff

  • ex capsa: from the coffin

  • ex carnes: from the flesh

  • ex capillis: from the hair

  • ex cineribus: from the ashes

  • ex coronae spinae: from the Crown of Thorns

  • ex crusis: from the cross

  • ex domo: from the house

  • ex indumentis: from the clothing (also used to indicate cloth touched to a first or second class relic)

  • ex ligneo pulvere, mixto pulveri corporis, quem residuum continebat prima capsa funeralis: from the remains of the wood, mised with the dust of the body, the residue of which was contained in the first coffin

  • ex ligno ss crucis, ex lig crucis: from the True Cross

  • ex ossibus: from the bone

  • ex pallio: from the cloak

  • ex praesepe: from the birthplace / manger of Our Lord

  • ex pulvere corporis: from the dust of the body

  • ex sanguine: from the blood

  • ex sepulchri: from the tomb

  • ex sindone: from the burial cloth

  • ex velo: from the veil

  • ex veste: from the vestment/garment

  • AP, A: Apostle

  • C: Confessor

  • D: Doctor

  • Ep, E: Bishop

  • Ev, E: Evangelist

  • M: Martyr

  • Prot, Proto: First

  • PP: Pope

  • Sp: Spouse

  • V: Virgin

Veneration and Intercession:

From the earliest days of Christianity, relics have been venerated by the faithful.  This included items associated with Jesus as well as bones, clothing, and others items left behind by martyrs and holy men and women of the faith (the saints). 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that saints serves as models and intercessors.  They are not worshiped -- only God is worshiped.  Veneration, instead, is the showing of respect and reverence.  The good that comes to us through the saints and their relics is God’s and of God’s doing.  The praying to saints is that of an intercessory prayer and invocation.  We are asking them to pray to God for us in the hope our prayers to God may be more effective.  For a more in depth discussion, please see the Catholic Encyclopedia on “Intercession” - http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08070a.htm

 

During the Council of Trent, the Church reaffirmed that, "Veneration ought to be shown by the faithful to the bodies of the martyrs and other saints, who live with Jesus Christ. For they were His living members and the temples of the Holy Ghost; he will raise them up again to eternal life and glory; and through them God grants many blessings to mankind."  

Saint Augustine, a great theologian and Doctor of the Church, wrote regarding concerns with the veneration of the relics of Saint Stephen, "Let your charity understand it is not to Stephen we raise an altar in this place; but of Stephen's relics we make an altar to God. God loves these altars; and if you ask the reason: 'Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.' (Ps. cxv.15) In obedience to God the invisible soul has quitted its visible dwelling. But God preserves this dwelling; He is glorified by the honor we pay to this lifeless flesh; and, clothing it with the might of His divinity, He gives it the power of working miracles." 

Notitiae 30/1994, 349-350:

In 1994 new norms were promulgated concerning the concession of relics from the Sacrario Apostolico, in particular pieces of bone and flesh of the the saints, their clothing, and relics of the True Cross.  These are generally considered to be first and second class relics. 

 

It was also intended that these norms serve as a model for others, such as religious postulations for the causes of canonization, that issue relics.  These norms were published in Italian.  The norms along with a rough English translation are provided here (click for the PDF).  To the best of our knowledge, we are the only online resource to have made these available.

 

Prior to these norms it was possible for private individuals to request relics for private veneration.   Despite the changes second class relics are often still made available to the faithful by various postulators for the causes.  In addition, there have been many first and second relics issued over the centuries, including to private individuals, which are still in the hands of private individuals or have since found their way into the hands of private individuals.  An interesting discussion on this matter can be found in this article.

Be Inspired