What’s a Relic?

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Relics are objects of religious veneration, from bones of saints to items that touched martyrs. They are common in Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam. Relics are kept in ornate containers and displayed to pilgrims and visitors, believed to have tremendous power in some cultures. The sale of relics is banned by the Catholic Church, and sometimes churches argue over the provenance of their relics. Relics are sometimes paraded and displayed to the public for people to touch or kiss.

A relic is an object of religious veneration, which can range from the bones of a saint to an object that touched a martyr during his lifetime. Relics are especially common in Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, but are also kept by Buddhists, Muslims, and others, typically for the purpose of displaying them to the faithful. For people who belong to religions that don’t venerate relics, the practice of storing 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 the relics are kept because they are considered of religious value. As a general rule, relics associated with prophets such as Christ are especially revered, acknowledging the importance of their owner, and relics belonging to saints are also highly prized. Beyond these two categories, some religions have custody of relics related to people of religious significance who have not been formally granted sainthood, and relics that are tangentially related to more sacred relics, such as handkerchiefs that have touched bones of saints.

Typically, relics are kept in ornate containers known as reliquaries and are displayed to pilgrims and visitors. In some cultures, people believe that touching or seeing a relic has tremendous power, and spontaneous healings, sudden fortunes, and other events are attributed to relics. In other cultures, the idea that relics are lucky or enchanted 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 that sellers claimed were things like saints’ bones, saints’ personal belongings, 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 specifically bans 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 can argue over the provenance of their relics, as in the case where 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 church’s word for it when it claims to have relics in its possession. In some communities, relics are paraded on occasion and sometimes displayed to the public for people to touch or kiss the relic.

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