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What is a relic?

Closeup of the relic of St. Patrick which is now housed at St. Patrick Parish in Hubbard. Photo by Brian Keith.
After a fire damaged the church building at St. Patrick Parish in Hubbard, parishioners spent several years renovating their church. When the new space was blessed on March 17, 2024, the parish received a relic of St. Patrick, which led the procession. Photo by Brian Keith.

The word “relic” derives from the Latin reliquere, which means “to abandon, or leave behind.” Catholic relics—items associated with canonized saints or Jesus Christ—have always held an important place in Catholic spirituality. In fact, there is a Biblical basis to the significance of relics: In 2 Kings 13:21, a dead man is returned to life after touching the bones of Elisha.   

Yet not all relics are created equal. First-class relics are objects directly associated with Christ’s life, such as the crown of thorns or pieces of the True Cross. The mortal remains of saints are also considered first-class relics. This could be anything from a single beard hair to the skull of a saint. For example, in our guide to local pilgrimages, several first-class relics can be found at Saint Anthony Chapel in Pittsburgh, including one of Saint Anthony’s molars.   

Second-class relics, also known as “contact relics,” were objects that a saint either possessed or touched. For example, the chains that imprisoned Saint Peter, housed in Rome’s San Pietro in Vincoli, would be a second-class relic. If Rhoda Wise is canonized, her rocking chair would become a second-class relic.  

Third-class relics, the final classification of relics, are objects that have been touched to either a first- or second-class relic. Unlike first- and second-class relics, there is no process for formally recognizing third-class relics.  

The process of authenticating of first- and second-class relics begins with the certification of the Bishop of the diocese to which the saint belongs. For a Bishop to do this, certain aspects of the relic must be verified—for example, in the case of first-degree relics, it must be scientifically proven that the relic in question consists of human remains, among other provisions. Furthermore, any action taken in regard to the remains or possessions of the saint must be consented to by the saint’s heir and the saint’s congregation. These measures were implemented to protect the faithful from fake relics, a common problem in previous centuries.  

At a basic level, relics help us to connect with our faith and be inspired by the lives of those who devoted themselves to God—here, it is important to note that we do not worship saints, we merely venerate them and pray for them to intercede on our behalf. As such, some relics are associated with miracles, including healings. In those cases, it is not the object itself or the saint which imparts the miracle, but God alone, answering the intercession of a saint. 

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