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Is Catholic Devotion to Relics Weird and Pagan?

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The Catholic devotion to relics is, for some, an embarrassment and an echo of pagan practices. Father Hugh Barbour explains what’s going on with this ancient Christian practice and why it is perfectly consistent with the teachings of Christ and the Apostles.


Cy Kellett:
Hello and welcome again to Catholic Answers Focus. I’m Cy Kellett, your host, and maybe one of the things that we Catholics come into some criticism for, not maybe, we definitely come into some criticism for our attachment to relics. We’ll defend relics a little bit in this episode and here to do that is our good friend and chaplain and spiritual leader and I don’t know how else to categorize you, all around great guy. Father Hugh Barber. Hello, Father.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
Hello there.

Cy Kellett:
Father is a Norbertine priest, a former prior of St. Michael’s Abbey in Orange County. You should go online and look at St. Michael’s Abbey. You’re building a new abbey church.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
Yes, brand new one.

Cy Kellett:
I can’t wait to see it. Okay, Father, relics-

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
Full of relics actually, the new-

Cy Kellett:
Wonderful.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
Lots of relics.

Cy Kellett:
A lot of people find that weird or creepy or just kind of embarrassing that Catholics are involved in this. I’ve always taken the-

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
I wonder why. How strange.

Cy Kellett:
It seems to me a very humane thing. It seems to me a very humane opportunity for connection, for human connection that relics are. How do we justify this, relics?

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
For someone who looks at the matter simply, as you mentioned, from a human point of view, there really is no reason for justifying it. The fact that people-

Cy Kellett:
I think that that’s a good point. Yeah.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
I mean it should be naturally justifiable. The thing that people find icky is due to several centuries of vehement anti-relic propaganda from certain quarters of non-Catholic Christianity.

Cy Kellett:
Right. A kind of minimalist Christianity.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
Right. They try to make it out that it’s some sort of gross disfigurement of the departed or something ghoulish because it has to do with bones and death and so on and so forth. You might as well say that visiting the cemetery where you know that just within feet of you is the-

Cy Kellett:
Is Grandma.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
… corrupted body of your grandmother. You might as well call that creepy and ghoulish.

Cy Kellett:
Ghoulish, yeah.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
Right. And then of course there’s cremation, people keeping a cremated remains in their houses on their mantelpiece which, by the way, Catholics are not permitted to do. They cannot keep the cremated bodies of their loved one’s ashes in the house. They have to bury them or put them in a cemetery of some kind, just FYI, close parenthesis.

Cy Kellett:
And follow the laws of your municipality when you do that.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
You can’t spread them over the … You’re not allowed to spread them over the ocean or … precisely because of the respect for the department. But the fact that people do that with their … says that it’s a natural human thing that they want the presence of the remains of the persons they love and hold dear. That would be very natural in the case of the Christian saints in particular. But it’s actually natural to cultures in general. I mean for example, on Washington’s birthday, one of the big Masonic lodges of Boston has a big procession and they carry in procession a tooth of George Washington and some of his hair in these reliquaries.

Cy Kellett:
Really? I didn’t know that.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
Yes. Yeah, Masons who are supposed to despise all of that. So just goes to show, it’s kind of a human thing. Some Muslims have relics, some Buddhists, some Hindus. So everybody has it because it’s a natural human tendency to show reverence or honor to the departed who are of a particular importance. Now, what you’ll get with some pamphleteers who oppose the Catholic church vehemently is they’ll use those examples as signs that it’s a pagan practice or something like that. But that’s just ridiculous and it’s shown to be ridiculous because in the scriptures all over the place, the concern for the disposition of the bodies of the departed and the building of their tombs and the reverence shown them, people went in pilgrimage to the tombs of the prophets.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
Now, the tombs, what are the tombs? Bones. Their tombs are large reliquaries. You can go even now in Palestine and visit the tomb of the prophet Samuel, for example, which is now … It was a monastery of our order in the middle ages, but it became a mosque under Turkish rule. And then now it’s an Ultra Orthodox synagogue. But you can go there and see all these very Orthodox Jews who don’t want to have anything to do with idolatry. But they study the Torah in the presence of the relics of the prophet Samuel, which they kiss. The point is the veneration of the remains of the departed, the ones you love or know or admire for historical reasons, family reasons, professional reasons, whatever it might be, and religious reasons is a perfectly normal human thing.

Cy Kellett:
That’s how it strikes me. Yeah. It’s something that brings a profound kind of satisfaction to the heart, even on the natural level, never mind the supernatural level. I will talk to you about the supernatural level but-

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
That’s the point is as Christians, we have an additional and very powerful reason for venerating the remains of the departed because we believe in the resurrection of the dead, that is that the bodies of the departed will rise on the last day and we’ll rise in our same body. Now, the same body may have been corrupted. It may have fallen apart, but God can make the identical person with just even the slightest little bit of the matter that was in the original body, just like-

Cy Kellett:
Like Eve from Adam.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
Right. Just as we came from a single cell. So any part of us spread anywhere can be used to bring about our resurrected body. We know how true that is. People used to laugh at that as being so unscientific, but that’s before that we knew about DNA. As you can see, the ancient faith is more in line with real science than the scoffers, all the scoffers. So today’s gospel today, it’s the Tuesday of the fourth week of the year and we have the gospel from the Gospel of Mark, the fifth chapter about the woman who has the issue of blood and she’s in the crowd. She says, “If I could just touch His cloak, then I’ll get healed.” So she touches His cloak and our Lord feels the power go out from Him and He wants the miracle to be known.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
He obviously wants it to be known too, that she was healed by touching His cloak. He wants people to know that. So he asked the question, not because he didn’t know, but because that’s the way of getting the people around to look around and wonder. Of course then the apostles, know-it-alls that they were at that time, act as though they-

Cy Kellett:
They’re going to help Him out. “Come on, Jesus.”

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
As the Savior’s being reasonable, “Look, there’s a whole crowd here. How do you expect us to know?” But He wanted her to come forward also, and she did and then she gave witness to that. In Catholic parlance that would be making use of a Holy relic. Now granted, He was still wearing the cloak, but there are many places on earth that venerate the cloak of our Lord, the relics of His cloak. That’s not a dogma of the Catholic faith. It might be or it might not be. It might probably be or probably not. Who knows? But the point is, it’s venerated in several places among which is Trier and the cathedral, which our cruise is visiting this June, the Shrine of the Holy-

Cy Kellett:
Okay. I’m getting a little cruise advertisement there.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
… Tunic of our Savior, this Seamless Tunic.

Cy Kellett:
How wonderful.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
Yeah. But there’s an example right there just from the gospels and of course in the Acts of the Apostles, you have people taking handkerchiefs and touching them to St. Peter and then going home and healing the sick with the handkerchiefs that they’ve touched to St. Peter.

Cy Kellett:
So these are really biblical, the biblical roots-

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
They’re examples, right. So if a handkerchief touched St. Peter, well then obviously there’s no problem in principle with also the relics of St. Peter or his tomb. Bringing about miraculous cures that people accomplished through faithful Prayer but with a confident use of this outward bodily thing that’s connected to the Holy person.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
That’s it. Otherwise you’ll end up with a religion that would say, “Well, I don’t believe in healing by laying on of hands because hands are just created things. Healing happens by the direct action of God. So I’m not going to lay my hands on you. That’s pagan.” They can make anything that has any physical material component sound like it’s some kind of pagan nonsense.

Cy Kellett:
Right. Like anointing with oil which, of course, the Bible tells you to anoint the sick with oil.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
Right. There are a lot of these televangelists and whatnot who use anointing oil. They don’t use water too much except in baptism, but they use anointing oil.

Cy Kellett:
But that’s very pagan. Pagans anointed with oil all the time.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
Right. It’s an ancient practice that indicates health and all kinds of other things as well. But no, it’s-

Cy Kellett:
Could I ask you a question just theologically? Is this connected to the idea of what original sin has done to us? That, in a sense, that the Catholic church says we’re deeply wounded by original sin, but we’re not made utterly corrupt and black by it, so that there are still good things in human culture that the Catholic church is willing to accept that maybe our Protestant brothers and sisters who believe in the absolute corruption of the person as a consequence of original sin, they can’t accept that, you know what-

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
Where do you stop with that? Because if you have a religion made up of human beings, you’re going to have to do human things. You’re going to have to eat together, to sing together, to have a culture that includes certain gestures or observances. So you can make anything sound like anything else because human cultures basically all have the same elements. They said, “Whoa, Whoa. The pagans offer incense to their divinities. So the Catholics, that sounds so pagan.” A woman would said that to me. “Well, that incense. That’s so pagan.” And I said, “What’s pagan about it? It’s in the Old Testament?” She goes, “Well, that’s the Old Testament.” I said, “Well, try the Apocalypse. They’re offering incense to God in heaven as the ideal worship.” I said, “You can use anything as a sacrifice to God, wax, incense. Animals are offered in sacrifice, all kinds of things.”

Cy Kellett:
That logic just becomes so crippling, like pagans got married. Does that make Christian marriage not Christian? I mean it becomes utterly crippling.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
I remember I had a book in school on comparative religions. The school was secular. It shows a priest elevating the chalice at mass, the consecration of the Precious Blood. And then the reasoning of the book was, well, this is something that’s found in all these religions and they make it sound like that relativizes it. You’re going like, “Well, that’s an argument for the truth of Christianity, because our religion corresponds to the ordinary expectations of human beings with regard to worship.” It’s only the extreme anti-liturgical forms of different religions, including our own, but also for example in Islam, the version that they practice in Saudi Arabia, the, what’s that called? The-

Cy Kellett:
Wahhabi?

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
… Wahhabi version is really extreme and it doesn’t allow any kind of marked tomb for anyone, doesn’t believe in pilgrimages or venerating the relics of the Muslim saints. Whereas other Sunnis are more easygoing and certainly the Shiites, they have all those things. Just like they have the same kind of divide between the extreme Calvinists in Christianity who doesn’t allow any of that and then the Catholic. These are tendencies in human nature. The problem with it is that of course you can exaggerate in something which is not a primary importance. So if you have more confidence and more interest in the veneration of relics than you do in love of neighbor or you’re getting ill-gotten gains or making money off of it or something like that, well, then that’s something you can criticize. But that’s not because of the practice itself.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah, and the people that you’ll see come to visit the relics of a saint that are coming around are, generally speaking, those are people who are doing everything they can, at least for the ones that I have seen, to live a charitable life. They want to be close to Christ. That’s why they’re coming.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
I remember at our abbey there was a, while it was some years back, a Dominican father from France was bringing in pilgrimage around the United States the relic of the forearm of St. Mary Magdalene, who by tradition went over to France with Lazarus and so on. It’s the Western tradition, in any case, of this. Well, so the relic visited our abbey church. Now, we had the largest crowd we’ve ever have had there or probably ever will. We noticed there were over 600 people visited and you have to drive out into the countryside to go to our abbey. 600 people visited and they packed the El Toro Road that we’re on so that there was a traffic jam, which there never, ever, ever is a traffic jam on El Toro Road. It’s just inconceivable where we are.

Just to get up to the abbey, we had a Vesper service and whatnot and a sermon by the Dominican friar who came. People were in the church all day praying. Why were they so interested? Because Mary Magdalene was a penitent. She was a sinful woman who reformed her life. We had tons of confessions heard. My goodness. The confessionals were working all day long. These are not superstitious people. These are people that are connecting with the holiness of God’s saints and trying to imitate their example by imitating her example of penitence by going to confession when visiting her relic. It’s very simple.

Cy Kellett:
It is very simple. But let me put it to you in a hard question as a theologian. Why does God do it this way? The gospels, Jesus is so physical, like spitting in dirt and putting it on people’s eyes.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
He made mud with his-

Cy Kellett:
Yeah, yeah. Well-

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
Out of what was man made? Out of the slime of the earth. That’s what it says in Genesis. So when you recreate someone physically, our Lord used as a symbolic sacramental sign the same thing so the Jews there understood exactly what He was doing. He wasn’t just making messy on someone’s face, He was actually acting like the Creator. It’s even an assertion of His divinity at that point. It’s very clear what He’s doing. They would have gotten it, unlike people nowadays because we have also hygienic issues. Our Lord used spittle, but spittle was regarded as a carrier, not just of disease, but rather of having a purifying element because it’s salty. Anything that was salted, they regarded as having a purifying element, and also that it contains the breath of life.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
Like the expression, he’s a spitting image of his father. That’s his spirit and image. But the whole idea is one of transmission of life. All of those physical signs of the divine presence and power are what our religion is made up of and the sacraments are the clear indication of that. The sacraments are what make the church, the church. They’re all outward signs of and causes of the grace of God, which is invisible.

Cy Kellett:
So the next time the relic of Mary Magdalene or of another saint comes to my parish, I should go visit and pray with confidence that this is-

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
Certainly.

Cy Kellett:
There’s nothing unreasonable or kind of un-Christian or pre-Christian about this at all.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
No, not at all. No. It’s a legitimate form of expressing our devotion to those who are now in the glory of God and with whom we will also, God willing, shared glorious resurrection. So it’s a way of expressing our faith in that. Now, this was probably the earliest, you might say, popular devotion of Christians, if you want to say popular. It was liturgical though too, is that the Christians first showed their devotion by observing the anniversaries of the departed, whether they were departed martyrs or just departed members of their family. They went to their graves and they sometimes had mass. But they had a prayer service and then they shared some food and honored the departed, whether the martyr or the departed Christian.

That custom continues to this day. You think about it, and this is a pet peeve of mine, the Day of the Dead. The media, especially public radio, if you’re out there, public radio tries to turn this lovely Christian feast day into some sort of pagan thing because they’re all non-practicing Presbyterians or something like that and they’re very, very liberal in their outlook. They think it’s very nice. It’s all very nice and cultural and Hispanic. They don’t realize that they’re praying for the departed and their families who were in purgatory. They’re having masses offered for them and they’re visiting their graves in order to pray for them. They’re performing acts of charity towards each other, feeding each other, whatnot, so as to be a comfort to the departed, to make up for their lacks.

So it’s a religious act in favor of the dead to help them. It’s not like that cartoon they made where the song says, “As long as I’m remembered, I’ll still exist.” No, they exist and they’ll always exist eternally. All right. It’s just that condescending, colonial, big-white-master attitude towards Day of the Dead that I think Hispanics should reject that and just react against it and say, “No, we’re not going to let you appropriate our religion and turn it into something that it’s not.” Because the Day of the Dead is a day of prayer for the departed and that’s what it’s for. It’s not some cute thing that you can-

Cy Kellett:
You can add to your multicultural reporting-

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
Right. Isn’t that nice? And have your kids in their special school draw pictures of this cultural up-to-date thing. Special school, I didn’t mean for special children. I meant just someplace where everything is just very PC.

Cy Kellett:
Yes. Right.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
No, you have to talk about-

Cy Kellett:
We know that school.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
But they don’t tell you this because they believe that people once they die don’t go to heaven directly unless they have fully atoned for their sins which they committed in this life. That means that they have a waiting period, which is not entirely pleasant, that causes longing and suffering on their part, and we try to help them with that. You never hear that in these radio presentations of Day of the Dead.

Cy Kellett:
No.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
Enough of a rant about that. But the thing is, we should pray for the dead and especially perform works of charity. St. Thomas says that the best thing you can do for the departed is not just to visit their graves and all that, but it’s to perform acts of charity on their behalf because that is the strongest offering you can make because acts of love are communicable. You can give them away. The satisfactory boundaries can be given away and you can make up for people’s lacks by doing it yourself. Now, we live in a world where if you listened to Greta Thunberg, you believe that it’s possible to pay a lot of money to make up for your use-

Cy Kellett:
Yes, the new indulgences, yeah. Buy a tree in Costa Rica.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
… of fossil fuel by paying some company to do something else. That’s just lovely. But, well, there you go. It shows how consistent people are.

Cy Kellett:
Well, let me conclude with this thing because you mentioned Thomas Aquinas.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
Yes.

Cy Kellett:
Tell us about Thomas Aquinas and relics.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
He was the greatest theologian of the Christian church. I can safely say that in terms of scientific theologian, the greatest, not the most authoritative. Those are the evangelists and apostles the greatest otherwise and most authoritative after them, I think. But he was not so learned a theologian as to disdain simple devotion of the faithful because he himself had a great devotion to St. Agnes, virgin and martyr. One day he had to prepare for a debate with the secular clergy of the University of Paris who didn’t want the religious priests to teach in the university. They said, “You should go back to the monastery and pray and not study and not teach in the university.” He was very much opposed to this of course.

Cy Kellett:
He’s a Dominican religious.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
Right. Dominicans, their charism is preaching and study and study in view of the preaching and the proclamation of the true faith. But still he went to defend that position and very successfully and ably. But he prayed to St. Agnes for this intention repeatedly. Well, he gets this horrible toothache and swelling in his mouth that makes him an able to talk. So he prayed to St. Agnes and in the middle of the night, the tooth falls from his jaw completely intact, a whole tooth, the toothy tooth, the whole thing, like Mr. Tooth that walks-

Cy Kellett:
With the legs.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
… with the legs, right. All right. The whole thing just falls from his mouth and the swelling goes down and he’s able to give his defense, which is very successful. He had not just one but two relics of St. Agnes that he pinned inside his habit as a devotional action. Probably some kind friend gave him two. And then he also kept after that the tooth as a souvenir to show people the power of St. Agnes intercession. So as lofty as his theology is, he didn’t disdain just the simple devotion to a relic of a saint, like a tooth that is evidence of the power of the saint’s intercession. So too, his relics had a very interesting story, which is a little bit slightly on the gross side, but it’s medieval.

The Franciscans got possession of the church where he was buried. He died in Fossanova in Italy. That was the church of the Cistercians who followed the Benedictine rule. But then the Franciscans got hold of the church and so the Dominicans wanted their St. Thomas back because he was buried in their church. They were happy to do it. But in order to transport the relics to France, they needed to do it tidily. So they had to get the relics in a small pack, not just have a giant casket. So they boiled his remains and separated the bones from everything else, dried it all out, put it in the package, and send it there. We don’t do that any more, you’ll be glad to know.

Cy Kellett:
We don’t boil saints.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
But they did in the Middle Ages because they were not squeamish.

Cy Kellett:
Well, in many ways, thank God they did because we’ve got Thomas’ bones.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
We’ve got Thomas’ bones. We’ve got them all in a tidy little box too, not in a … Because he was a large man, but it’s all in a little tiny box. So we’re not afraid to be ridiculous when it actually corresponds to the historical facts. But I have a little relic of St. Thomas and you can’t tell what it is, but it’s there.

Cy Kellett:
Well, thank you very much for this. I think it’s very, very helpful. It’s good to be reminded about the reasonableness of the faith.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
Right. There’s so many examples in the scriptures where the prophet Elijah worked miracles with his relics, worked miracles in the Old Testament and the carrying of the bones of Joseph all the way back to Palestine. There’s so many things like that where it shows that the veneration was there in the scriptures.

Cy Kellett:
Father Hugh Barber has been our guest. Father Hugh, thank you very much.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
You’re very welcome.

Cy Kellett:
And thank you for listening to Catholic Answers Focus. If you like us, would you go to Apple Podcasts and give us a five-star rating and maybe a comment, a recommendation there. That’s what helps grow the podcast and we are trying to help grow it. Or give us a high score, if you are so inclined, wherever you get your podcasts and let people know they can find out all about us at catholicanswersfocus.com. I am Cy Kellett, your host, and we’ll see you next time, God willing, right here on Catholic Answers Focus.

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