An exchange between me Godwin Delali Adadzie and Catholic apologist Mark Joseph Bonocore some years ago when I was still learning more about the Catholic faith. It was formerly hosted on my Catholic apologetics ministry’s site Sts. Peter and Paul Catechism Ministry.
Please I’ve been asked to explain why we use Relics of Saints and Matyrs on the Altar. I was also challenge to prove that the use of relics is no different than that of the human parts used by Pagan Priest and Traditional witch doctors
Well, the reason that it is the custom of Catholics to keep the relics of saints and martyrs on our altars is because, in the very early Church, it was the custom to celebrate Mass in the Roman catacombs on top of the tombs of the martyrs. This custom is actually what Revelation 6:9-10 is making a reference to. The Church used the martyrs’ tombs as altars because, when Mass is offered, it is our participation in the eternal worship that is always taking place among the angels and saints in Heaven, just as we see in the opening chapters of the Book of Revelation. For, as even Protestants believe (because the Epistle to the Hebrews says so), Christ is our High Priest, and He offers His Sacrifice (His own-time historical Sacrifice on the Cross, and also His Resurrection) to the Father in Heaven for all eternity. The Mass (and most especially the Eucharist) is our earthly participation in the eternal offering of this Sacrifice in Heaven, just as St. Paul says in 1 Corinth 10:16-22. So, the reason that we keep the relics of the saints on or near the altar when we celebrate Mass is to remind us that the Church on earth and the Church in Heaven is the same Church, and that, when we celebrate Mass, these same saints are truly with us and are worshiping the Lord with us. For, what does Scripture say? It says that those who truly believe in Christ will NEVER die (John 11:26), and that those in Heaven will be “with” the Lord (Phil 1:23), and the Lord Jesus is not dead, but very much alive. Thus, the saints and martyrs are not dead, but alive and with us, since they are with and in Christ, and Christ promised to be with us always. This is the meaning of Matt 16:18, when Jesus speaks of His Church and says that “the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” Here, the Greek word is actually not “hell” but “hades” –the realm of the dead, or death itself. And so, what Jesus is saying is that death itself will never prevail against His Church or divide its unity. And so, we believe that the saints in Heaven are united with us in one Body, since we all belong to the same Body of Christ, the Church. Thus, when the Church worships on earth, the Church that is in Heaven worships with it. This is what the Church is expressing when it keeps the relics of saints and martyrs close by when it celebrates Mass. It is not a pagan custom, but a custom rooted very firmly in Biblical truth.
Another reason why relics are not pagan is because we see the Christian custom already in use in the Bible. If one bothers to look at Acts 19:11-12, it says ….
“So extraordinary were the mighty deeds God accomplished at the hands of Paul that when face cloths or aprons that touched his skin were applied to the sick, their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.”
This is an example of a relic. In fact, the Greek Church still claims to have some of these face cloths and aprons, since they were preserved by the church of Ephesus and still used to heal people after St. Paul died. Relics are Biblical. They are not pagan. They have nothing to do with paganism or witch doctors, but are a sign that our Christian Faith is more than a mere spiritual faith. Rather, our Christian Faith is both a spiritual faith and an Incatnational (Flesh and Blood) Faith, because Jesus came to us physically in the Flesh, and He established a physical Church which could touch people directly and incarnationally. Relics are an extension of the fact that the Church truly is the Body of Christ. St. Paul was unquestionably part of the Body of Christ. He was holy and enjoyed great intimacy with the Lord, and the Lord worked miracles through Paul because of that. To have something that Paul personally touched, or even a fragment of Paul’s body, is and always was seen as a way of connecting to Paul in an Incarnational sense, and so connecting to Jesus Himself through Paul (or some other holy saint). This incarnational dimension of the Christian Faith is sorely rejected by Protestants …which is why they overlook passages like Acts 19:11-12 and don’t immediately recognize relics to be Biblical.
Hope that helps.