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Holy Relics – Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Ways

By Yona Williams    1/31/10

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In the world of holy relics, the Roman Catholic Church created a classification system: first class, second class, and third class – to signify the importance of holy objects. In this article, you will learn more about the categories, as well as some of the characteristics of relics examined by the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Roman Catholic Classification

First-class relics are objects that have a direct connection to the event of Christ's life, such as the manger or cross. Physical remains of a saint, such as a limb, strand of hair or bone are also considered a first class relic.

In traditional circles, the relics of a martyr are given a higher level of attention that the relics of other saints. The condition of a holy relic can also increase its status. For example, high regard is given to the body of a saint that dates back 500 years, but appears as though it is still awake. Body parts of a saint that were important to their life are also highly regarded. For example, a well-known thinker's head would be considered a rather important relic. The feet of a saint who was well-traveled was prized.

Second class relics are items that a saint wore, such as a shirt or glove. If the saint owned or consistently used an item, like a book or crucifix, it would most likely become a relic. For example, the chains of Saint Peter have been preserved in San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome, and are classified as a second-class relic. A third class relic is any object that came in contact with a first or second-class relic. The majority of third class relics are small swatches of cloth.

The Code of Canon Law

The Church strictly forbids the sale of relics, which is clearly stated in the Code of Canon Law.

King Philip II's Collection

King Philip II of Spain boasted more than 7,000 holy relics, including pieces of the true cross, the crown of thorns, 306 arms and legs, and 144 heads. In his possession, he held 10 entire bodies. The King had his favorites within his collection of holy relics. He favored the arm of St Vincent and the knee of St Sebastian.

Examination of Relics

Within the Eastern Orthodox Church, the veneration of relics plays an important role in their religious practices. Veneration is a special act that honors a saint. Respectfully bowing or making the sign of the cross before a saint's relic, icon, or statue are some of the ways this practice is followed. Other times, items are kissed. The examination of relics plays an important role in the glorification (or canonization) of new saints. One of the things that are looked at is the condition of the relics associated with the saint. In some cases, the flesh does not decay on the bones of saints. A honey coloring may appear and the skin may give off a sweet scent. Some relics have been known to emit the scent of myrrh.

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