A basic and simple guide for those unfamiliar with the ancient practice.
The veneration of relics in the Catholic Church is an ancient tradition that dates back all the way to the New Testament. We can find its origins in the life of Jesus Christ (think of the woman who touched Jesus’ cloak and was healed). The Church has always treated the relics of saints in a special manner, preserving them and often putting them on display for the benefit of the faithful.
Relics of saints are typically housed in special gold cases and can either be seen in a permanent display in various churches, or in a traveling presentation, similar to the recent tour of Padre Pio relics in the United States.
When venerating a relic it is most appropriate to show honor and respect to the saint by performing a simple exterior gesture. The Directory on Popular Piety explains that, “Popular piety is characterized by a great variety and richness of bodily, gestural and symbolic expressions: kissing or touching images, places, relics and sacred objects … These and similar expressions, handed down from father to son, are direct and simple ways of giving external expression to the heart and to one’s commitment to live the Christian life. Without this interior aspect, symbolic gesture runs the risk of degenerating into empty customs or mere superstitions, in the worst cases.”
In general the Church recommends an exterior gesture that fits the occasion and corresponds to a person’s interior disposition. Someone venerating a saint’s relic can kiss or touch the glass case that houses the relic, or simply stand near the relic in a prayerful attitude, raising one’s heart and mind to God and invoking the intercession of the saint.
Other acceptable gestures include signing oneself with the sign of the cross or kneeling in front of the relic in prayer. However, a person should not genuflect before the relic in a way similar to genuflecting before the Blessed Sacrament. Christ alone is reserved that type of veneration.
Whatever gesture a person chooses to use to venerate a relic, it must not be done out of superstition, but out of love for the saint and for God. Think of the practice in a similar way to someone who takes out a photograph of a beloved family member and kisses it every time he or she puts it back. The gesture is a sign of love for that person and contains no hint of superstition.
Venerating the relics of saints is a beautiful practice that brings us close to those who walked before us in the sign of faith. They “ran the race” and reached the end goal of Heaven. Seeing their relics and touching them can incite in us a greater urgency to strive for sanctity so that we can meet these holy men and women at the end our time on earth.