What is a Relic?
Many Pilgrimage visit important Shrines that house Sacred Catholic Relics. Understanding the way relics are classified in the Catholic Church is important to fully appreciate these amazing pieces of our shared history and why they are so strongly venerated.
A Relic, in religious terms, usually refers to the physical remains or personal effects of a Saint or Holy person that have been saved and preserved in an official reliquary, also known as a Shrine. The Catholic Church recognizes three classes of relics.
1. First-Class Relics
The most sacred class, a first-class relic refers to an item that is directly associated with the life of Jesus Christ. However, physical remains of a Saint’s body are also classified as first-class relics. In many cases, this type of first-class relic is entombed in an altar stone.
An example of a famous first-class relic can be found in Bethlehem in the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square. It is in the Grotto of the Nativity that you can see a relic of the original Manger at the place of Jesus’ birth – now marked by a star in the floor.
Another example of a first-class relic is the incorrupt body of St. John Vianney, the patron Saint of Parish Priests, who’s remains are entombed above the main altar in the Basilica in Ars-sur-Formans in France.
2. Second-Class Relics
A second-class relic is typically a personal belonging of a Saint or Holy person. In many cases, this is a piece of clothing or an object used by the Saint. The Latin term, “Ex indumentis”, meaning “from the clothing”, is often used when referring to a second-class Holy relic.
A famous example of a second-class relic is the chain that attached the Apostle Paul to the Roman solider while imprisoned in Rome, which is housed in the Papal Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls.
3. Third-Class Relics
An object that has been touched to a first-class relic is classified as a third-class relic. Many Catholics will bring a Crucifix or Rosary to a shrine and touch it to the venerated relic, thereby making it a third-class relic. However, unlike first and second-class relics, third class relics will not be formally recognized with official documentation.
Traveler's Tip: Third-Class Relics Make Great Gifts!
When traveling in the Holy Land, you can visit all of the sites, and in the order of the Gospel. You will have the opportunity to enter the Tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, touch the Rock of Agony in the Church of All Nations, touch the star in the Grotto of the Church of the Nativity .. and many more. Bring extra Rosaries with you – and have them in hand when you touch each spot. This way, you can gift friends and family members with Third Class Relics when you return home!