Today, on September 23, 2023, a relic of the heart of Saint Pio (Padre Pio) will be exposed for veneration in San Giovanni Rotondo. This is the town in southern Italy where Saint Pio (1887–1968) lived most of his life and is buried. Following Pope Benedict XVI’s blessing of the relic in 2019, thousands of Roman Catholic pilgrims are expected to descend on the town to seek Saint Pio’s blessing on their lives.
For the casual observer, it may come as a surprise that relics are still venerated. Yet the practice remains central to Roman Catholic life. For example, this particular relic was previously exposed in the Philippines and elsewhere. It’s one of many relics from Saint Pio that can be seen on the Padre Pio Relics Tour.
Venerating relics continues to be part of the core of Roman Catholic theology and devotional practice. Praying to the dead, asking for the intercession of saints, attaching to physical objects as mediators of grace, and centering life around folk devotional practices aren’t fringe aspects of the faith; they’re in the mainstream. This is why John Calvin’s Treatise on Relics remains relevant in our day.
At the time of the Protestant Reformation, the veneration of relics was one of the most hotly debated issues in the church. In 1543, John Calvin wrote his Treatise on Relics to confront the abuses of the practice as well as the theological foundations beneath it.
On first analysis, Treatise appears as a kind of survey of Roman Catholic spirituality. Calvin’s strategy is to approach the question of relics from two angles. First, he exposes the apparent contradictions present in the vast repertoire of relics (after all, how many pieces of the cross can there be?). He notes the bizarre nature of the objects, questions how they were collected, and critiques the idiosyncrasies of the cult attached to them.
Calvin offers an anecdotal account of relic veneration in the 16th century. He doesn’t attempt a comprehensive or systematic evaluation of all relics. Instead, he suggests that “if a general visitation of all existing relics were possible, a hundredfold more discoveries would be made.” He claims most relics are “frauds.” They’re “deceits for exciting the devotion of the people.” Calvin doesn’t shy away from using words like “abuses,” “false,” “fraud,” “trash,” “deceit,” “fables,” “mockery,” and “superstition” to describe relics. He believes many relics are counterfeits.
Second, Calvin addresses the idolatrous nature of relic veneration. Regardless of whether the relics are real or fake, authentic or counterfeit, Calvin believes the heart of the practice is the problem. His dramatic denunciation of idolatry pervades Treatise. Far from a lighthearted work that mocks the practice as merely superstitious or silly, it employs strong language to call for the church’s wholesale rejection of relic veneration.
Regardless of whether the relics are real or fake, authentic or counterfeit, Calvin believes the heart of the practice is the problem.
But this book doesn’t contain all Calvin has to say about relics. In the 1559 edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion (I.XI–XII), he reflects on the use of images in divine worship. Since God expects to be served exclusively, any form of worship or veneration that deviates from what’s prescribed in Scripture represents a sinful yielding to the lusts of imagination and unbelief. Calvin writes, “Instead of discerning Jesus Christ in his Word, his Sacraments, and his spiritual graces, the world has, according to its custom, amused itself with his clothes, shirts, and sheets, leaving thus the principal to follow the accessory.”
For Calvin, the relic isn’t a theologically neutral artifact. It’s the fruit of disobedience that refuses to worship God and God alone. Relics, which may have been introduced with good intentions and for pedagogical purposes, eventually opened the door to pagan religiosity and inappropriate veneration. “The desire for relics is never without superstition,” Calvin writes, “and what is worse, it is usually the parent of idolatry.”
In Treatise, Calvin doesn’t seek to address the subtle distinction between latria and dulia (service/worship and honor/veneration), the lexical-theological smokescreen behind which the Roman Catholic Church justifies the veneration of relics. He does that in the Institutes (I.XI.11): “If idolatry be nothing else than the transfer elsewhere of the honour which is due to God, can it be denied that this is idolatry?” For Calvin, the argument that relics are an accommodation to the faith of simple people is invalid. The responsibility for idolatry falls on the shoulders of the whole church that approves the veneration of relics.
Soli Deo Gloria
Unlike most relics in Roman Catholic churches and shrines, San Pio’s heart probably isn’t counterfeit. Yet what’s most problematic is the theology supporting its veneration.
Calvin proposes a simple and radical cure. We should “abolish from amongst us Christians this pagan superstition of canonising relics.” The practice should be completely eradicated to restore worship according to God’s will, in spirit and truth (John 4:24). For Calvin, the religion of relics representred one of the tragedies of his day, a tradition that needed to be reformed according to the gospel.
Relic veneration should be completely eradicated to restore worship according to God’s will, in spirit and truth.
But has anything changed since Calvin’s time? Today, Roman Catholicism continues to blend sophisticated philosophical traditions, complex theological strands, and highly aesthetic sensitivities with folk practices rooted in pagan belief systems. Relics stand at the intersection of these influences. Individuals may be able to pick and choose the kind of Roman Catholicism they prefer, but they can’t deny it demands you accept it wholesale, including its relics.
The news that Saint Pio’s heart is exposed as a relic and that Pope Benedict XVI—often acclaimed as “orthodox”—blessed it shows the Roman Catholic veneration of relics continues to be a significant issue in our day. The roots of this practice lie in the fact that Roman Catholicism isn’t ultimately committed to the biblical gospel but to a theological mix that has absorbed various beliefs and practices that contradict basic biblical truths.
Calvin’s warning is as relevant and urgent today as it was 500 years ago. We must get back to the gospel of salvation by grace alone through Christ alone. We must get back to glorifying God alone. Soli Deo gloria.
The Gospel Coalition