We’ve collected a variety of religious medals and other artifacts over the years. Some of these were replicas of well-known religious objects, such as the Medal of Saint Benedict or the Miraculous Medal. Others were more enigmatic, such as the small paper packet stuffed with cotton we were given at the Church of Saint Simeon (Sveti Šime) in Zadar, Croatia on the saint’s feast day. Most intriguing have been the relics we’ve found at various gift shops around the world. Initially, we wondered, was it really possible to purchase and own a holy relic? If so, what types of relics are actually sold in church and tourist gift shops? And could a genuine holy relic really be had for as little as $1.00 (USD)?
What are relics? In his book on relics and the history of medieval Europe, Charles Freeman explains that “[i]n classical Latin, reliquiae refers specifically to the physical remains or ashes of a dead human being, but by the end of the sixth century, . . . it was used in this sense to include everything from the foreskin of Jesus discarded at his circumcision, the hair or milk of the Virgin Mary, the bodies of the Apostles—but also anything that may have been associated with them,” including their clothes or anything that touched them.
Under the Code of Canon Law, it is strictly forbidden to sell relics. Canon 1190, the only canon that addresses the sale of holy relics, states succinctly, “It is absolutely forbidden to sell sacred relics.” Canon 1190 further provides, “Relics of great significance and other relics honored with great reverence by the people cannot be alienated validly in any manner or transferred permanently without the permission of the Apostolic See.”
Traditionally, however, the Catholic Church has recognized three classes of relics, and Canon 1190’s prohibition on the sale of relics appears to apply only to the sale of what are known as “first-class relics.”
Classes of Relics
Sacred relics are commonly divided into three classes, though a fourth is sometimes used to further distinguish certain holy objects.
First-class relics include the mortal remains of saints—such as bone, flesh, organs, or hair—as well as the instruments associated with the Passion of Jesus—such as the Crown of Thorns and the Column of the Flagellation.. Second-class relics are objects that came into close contact with a saint, such as articles of clothing, objects used by a saint, or devices used to torture or kill a martyred saint.. Third-class relics are objects that have been touched to a first- or second-class relic. Prospective third-class relics can include a variety of objects, both old and new, such as rosaries, bits of cloth, or medals.
On the other hand, some suggest that a third-class relic can only be created through contact with a first-class relic. An object touched to a second-class relic, therefore, would not qualify as a third-class relic. Such an object, however, might be considered a fourth-class relic—or nothing at all. One online reference site advises readers to “follow [their] own faith and belief for these particular relics.”
A Saint Anthony medal we recently discovered in a gift shop made us wonder. It was sold as a relic, and on its reverse was a small red circle under which was visible a small piece of cloth. The Latin phrase ex indumentis was inscribed above the cloth.
Ex indumentis means “from the clothing,” and its presence on the Saint Anthony medal suggested the cloth was a bit of Saint Anthony’s clothing—or perhaps a piece of his burial cloth. As such, it would have been a second-class relic.
In recent years, however, pieces of cloth accompanied by the phrase ex indumentis have been added to a host of religious items—from relic medals, to prayers cards, to statues—even though these cuts of fabric are not from the clothing of a saint. In most cases, these cloths have been touched to a holy relic, making them third-class relics. Still, the inclusion of the phrase ex indumentis is misleading. These relics are not strictly speaking bits of a saint’s clothing.
Our Saint Anthony relic medal cost a modest $1.00. At that price, our relic medal most likely featured a third-class relic, a piece of cloth that was at some point touched to another relic. Should that distinction matter?
In her splendid book Saint Watching, Phyllis McGinley writes, “[T]he wonderful thing about saints is that they were human. They lost their tempers, got hungry, scolded God, were egotistical or testy or impatient in their turns, made mistakes and regretted them. Still they went on doggedly blundering toward heaven. And they won sanctity partly by willing to be saints, not because they encountered no temptation to be less.”
Perhaps it is enough that the medal of a saint reminds us of this?
 Charles Freeman, Holy Bones, Holy Dust 7-8 (2011).
 Code of Canon Law, Canon 1190, §1.
 Id. Canon 1190, §2. The prohibition against alienation or permanent transference also applies to “images which are honored in some church with great reverence by the people.” Id. Canon 1190, §3.
 See, e.g.,Joan Carroll Cruz, Relics 2 (1984); Charles Mangan, “Church Teaching on Relics,” Catholic Ed. Res. Ctr., 2003, https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/culture/catholic-contributions/church-teaching-on-relics.html.
 Cruz, supra note 4, at 2; Mangan, supra note 4.
 Cruz, supra note 4, at 2; Mangan, supra note 4.
 Scripture Catholic, “Catholic Relics,” https://www.scripturecatholic.com/catholic-relics/#Third_Class_Relics_Or_Even_Fourth.
 Phyllis McGinley, Saint Watching 5-6 (1969).