A journey of faith and history

Unveiling the World of Relics

“People brought to him all those who were sick and begged him that they might touch only the tassel on his cloak, and as many as touched it were healed”


Today, relics mean different things to different people. At their heart, they are a way of connecting with past generations who are no longer with us. Many of us retain objects that link us to the past in this way.

“My Dad died when I was young and I have his cufflinks because every time I pick them up and hold them I am taken back to when I was younger helping him fix his cufflinks on his shirt before he went out for the night. Through them I still feel connected to him.”

The term “relic” holds a specific meaning when considering the history of the Christian religion. The modern English word originates in the Greek and Latin used across the later Roman world. From the Near East to Britain, early Christians used the Greek word leipsana or the Latin reliquiae to refer to the remains of holy men and women: saints.

Most relics relate to the bodies of the saints or objects associated with them during their lives. Throughout the history of Christianity, religious relics—just like family keepsakes and souvenirs—created a tangible, physical connection with the past. The word often used in the Middle Ages for a shrine containing relics was memoria—a memory.

In the early Church, relics were not intended to be worshipped by Christians; they were to be honoured and venerated. The idea was summed up by St Jerome in the early 5th century, and often echoed.

A first class relic of
Mary Magdalene

“We, it is true, refuse to worship or adore, I say not the relics of the martyrs, but even the sun and moon, the angels and archangels … For we may not serve the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Still we honour the relics of the martyrs, that we may adore Him whose martyrs they are.”—Jerome, Letter to Riparius (404)

What are Catholic Relics?

At the heart of Catholic relic veneration lies the belief that these objects are imbued with a sacred and mystical power. Catholic relics are divided into three distinct classes, each with its unique association with the saints:

FIRST-CLASS RELICS: These are physical parts of a saint’s body, such as bone fragments or strands of hair. They represent an intimate connection to the saint’s life and sacrifice.

SECOND-CLASS RELICS: Comprising items used by the saint during their lifetime, like clothing or personal possessions, second-class relics offer a glimpse into the saint’s journey of faith.

THIRD-CLASS RELICS: These are objects that have come into contact with a first-class relic or the tomb of a saint, serving as a link to the saint’s intercession and spiritual influence.

The History of Relics

While there’s no consensus on when relic veneration began, evidence is found in the Old Testament of veneration of sacred objects such as the Ark of the Covenant, and the bones of Joseph. Reference to an early form of relic can be found in the New Testament, when a women was healed by touching the hem of Jesus’ garment (Mark 5:27-29). Matthew’s gospel recounts the sick being healed, having touched the tassel of Jesus’ cloak. (Matthew 14:36)

A little later in the year 156 A.D. was the death of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna (modern Turkey). He incurred the wrath of the Romans by praying to Jesus instead of the Roman gods, and he was burned. Afterwards, Polycarp’s followers gathered his remains and circulated them as sacred objects. With that, the modern notion of relics was born.

Veneration of relics is shown outwardly by respectfully bowing or making the sign of the cross before the relic.

“If I but touch his clothes, I shall be cured.” Immediately her flow of blood dried up. She felt in her body that she was healed of her affliction.

MARK 5:27-29

Relics from the Cathedral Collection...