Veneration of Relics

Catholics venerate the bones of ‘saints’

This is part of a series on the Roman Catholic sacraments. See the index.

One of the common problems I’ve experienced in my interactions with Roman Catholics is that they don’t understand their own religion. They are discouraged from reading the Bible and coming to their own conclusions, and so rarely think about the consequences of their own beliefs. Here we have a rather simple, but false, claim:

“Catholics don’t venerate lifeless statues, we venerate the person they represent.”

We will examine why—in the veneration of relics—this is not true.

Burying the Dead

What are relics? Relics are parts of dead saints—often martyrs—such as bones, ashes of the body, clothing they wore, or their personal possessions. In the early 4th century, pieces of wood—allegedly from the cross that Jesus was crucified on—started being distributed. Two men, Benenatus and Pequaria, received a piece of the wood. Being pious believers in Christ, they did the only thing that they could think to do with something holy: they buried it.

Prior to the late 4th century, when Christians died, they were buried and left there. They sometimes, but not always, left memorial stones to mark their passing. This followed the traditions of men of faith passed down from ancient (e.g. Old Testament) times.

If the Christian died a martyr for Christ, living Christians were known to gather once a year in the graveyard to remember the day of their death as their “birth day”, celebrating that with death in the faith comes new life in Christ in the kingdom to come. Early Christians did not dig up their bones (except, perhaps, to move them to a final resting place). They buried holy Christians who died and left them there.

Beginning in the late 4th century, Roman Catholics started disinterring the bodies of dead Christians to remove their bones for veneration, for storage in reliquaries, and for use in altars.

The Veneration of Relics

Did you know that in every consecrated Catholic altar there are one or more relics? Roman Catholic altars are coffins for the dead. Apparently this is less well-known than many believe. It must be fairly unknown for a Roman Catholic to loudly proclaim:

“Catholics don’t venerate lifeless statues, we venerate the person they represent.”

During every Roman Catholic Mass, the congregation genuflects—kneels—in prayer and worship before the altar at the front of the church. Every single one of these altars contains one or more relics of the saints, quite often a piece of bone. And every time a Roman Catholic kneels in worship, he kneels before a real physical piece of a dead saint. It is not some abstract, figurative representation of a person. It is a literal, physical piece of a lifeless corpse.

Before the rise of Roman Catholicism in the late 4th century, the church councils had already banned kneeling to pray on Sunday. The First Council of Nicaea in 325AD made this clear:

“Forasmuch as there are certain persons who kneel on the Lord’s Day and in the days of Pentecost, therefore, to the intent that all things may be uniformly observed everywhere (in every parish), it seems good to the holy Synod that prayer be made to God standing.” — Canon XX

Indeed, prior to the late 4th century, it was forbidden to kneel not just on the Lord’s Day, but also every day from Easter until Pentecost:

This [custom], of not bending the knee upon Sunday, is a symbol of the resurrection, through which we have been set free, by the grace of Christ, from sins, and from death, which has been put to death under Him. Now this custom took its rise from apostolic times, as the blessed Irenæus, the martyr and bishop of Lyons, declares in his treatise On Easter, in which he makes mention of Pentecost also; upon which [feast] we do not bend the knee, because it is of equal significance with the Lord’s day, for the reason already alleged concerning it. — Ignatius, Fragments, Fragment 7, 250AD.


The early church not only rejected kneeling in prayer, but would have been horrified at the idolatry of kneeling before and venerating the bones of a dead person.

The Ark of the Covenant

Do you think Joshua and Israelites bowing to the Ark was idolatry?

But what about the Ark of the Covenant? The Ark of the Covenant contained a golden pot of manna, Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant. It was created at the direct command of God himself and stored stored in the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle. But most importantly, the Holy of Holies contained the spirit of God. When a person bowed in the Holy of Holies, he bowed before God himself, not a box, a pot, a rod, or a set of tablets.

Joshua didn’t bow to the ark, he bowed before the presence of God.

This is especially notable, because when the Ark of the Covenant was moved in 2 Samuel 6, nobody bowed before it. Rather, they had a party to the Lord:

They set the ark of God on a new cart and brought it out of the house of Abinadab that was on the hill. And Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were guiding the new cart, and they brought it out of the house of Abinadab that was on the hill with the ark of God on it, and Ahio went before the ark. Now David and all the house of Israel were celebrating before Yahweh with many branches of fir trees, and with harps and lyres and with tambourines and with sistrums and with cymbals.” — 2 Samuel 6:3-5

At no point did David or the Israelites bow to or worship the Ark.

But what is to make of this?


Timothy F. Kauffman explains:

Protestants who interact with Roman Catholics in any capacity are often surprised to find that they believe Mary is the Ark of the New Covenant. As Pope Pius XII explained in Munificentissiumus Deus in 1950—his “infallible” proclamation that Mary was assumed bodily into heaven—many Church Fathers have understood the Ark of the Covenant “as a type of the most pure body of the Virgin Mary” (Munificentissiumus Deus, 26).

The problem is that this teaching only originated in the late 4th century. Many early and late church writers understood Christ to be the Ark of the (New) Covenant: Christ’s body is the symbol of the New Covenant. These include Hippolytus, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Victorinus, Gregory Nazianzen, Ambrose, John Chrysostom, Jerome, John Cassian, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Cyril of Alexandria, Gregory the Great, Dionysius of Alexandria, Gregory Thaumaturgus, Methodius of Olympus, and Ephraem the Syrian.

The Roman Catholic insists that “because Joshua bowed to the Ark and that the Ark is Mary, then it is right and good to bow before and pray to Mary. It cannot be idolatry.” But these beliefs are exposed as a series of false beliefs that originated in the late 4th century with the rise of Roman Catholicism.

Neither Joshua, David, nor the Israelites bowed to or worshiped the Ark, but did so before the presence of God. The early church believed that Jesus was the Ark of the New Covenant. The early church did not kneel on the Lord’s Day, but stood to pray. They did not venerate the bones of dead Christians. To do so is idolatry.

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