The veneration and collection of relics is a ritual which started in the Middle Ages, following many pilgrimages to the Holy Land following the Crusades. The first relics which were collected were those the Virgin Mary together with those of St. Joseph and Jesus Christ himself. Particularly, relics were collected from the remains of the Holy Cross, which was greatly venerated at the time. Other relics were collected from the house of Nazareth, where the Holy Family lived in.
The Second Vatican Council recalls that "the Saints have been traditionally honoured in the Church, and their authentic relics and images held in veneration" - taken from the document Decretum de invocatione, veneratione et reliquiis Sanctorum, et sacris imaginibus of the Council of Trent. The term "relics of the Saints" principally signifies the bodies - or notable parts of the bodies - of the Saints who, as distinguished members of Christ's mystical Body and as Temples of the Holy Spirit in virtue of their heroic sanctity, now dwell in Heaven, but who once lived on earth. Objects which belonged to the Saints, such as personal objects, clothes and manuscripts are also considered relics, as are objects which have touched their bodies or tombs such as oils, cloths, and images.
There are 3 kinds of relics which are issued by the Holy See. These are ranked as follows:
1st Rank Relics: Actual body parts, clothes, jewellery and pieces of other objects which are known to have belonged to the saint. This also includes bones and blood of the saint in particular.
2nd Rank Relics: Whole objects or fragments extracted from the place where the saint was present at. For example a piece of furniture at the house they lived in would be a 2nd Rank Relic. It is presumed that the said himself/herself was in touch with this particular object during his/her lifetime.
3rd Rank Relics: This are any other objects which were in lifetime, or even after his death, in contact with the body of the saint. These are the most commonly found relics and can be easily obtained in events commemorating the particular saint. They are usually touched to the burial place of the saint, to constitute a 3rd degree relic.
In itself, there is no procedure whereby the Vatican claims the body of the saints upon his/her death, since there is a whole process to be made before the person is finally declared a Saint. This includes miracles to be performed with the intercession of the person. After these have been scrutinized and studied by the respective board at the Vatican, the process for the canonisation of the person is started. This is divided into 3 stages, whereby the person:
- is primarily proclaimed Venerable
- he is then Beatified
- Then he is finally Canonised and declared a Saint
The process of being proclaimed venerable must be started after the death of the person, and it is then, that relics can start to be collected. At this stage in particular, the body is usually moved from the actual burial place, to a better location, where he/she can be venerated in a better manner (unless the person was already being venerated, such as in the case of Saint Pope John Paul II for example).
As already mentioned before, relics are then gathered from body parts, vestements, jewelry or fragments from places visited by the saint.
The Vatican had in fact issued a document on the veneration of Beatified people and Saints in 2001. Paragraphs 236 and 237 speak of relics and their collection. Additionally, chapter 8 of this document speaks of the importance of shrines and pilgrimages, outlining their importance to the Catholic faith.