It has been a very ancient custom of the Church to venerate the relics of the saints.
A relic is something connected to the life of a saint. Often it is a piece of their body such as a bone or hair. But it can also be an article of their clothing or a place they lived. In fact, many of the first churches were built over the sites where the saints were martyred or buried. Saint Peter's Basilica, for instance, was built over the site which is believed to be where he was buried. In keeping with this tradition, every altar in every church, including our own, has relics of the saints within it.
For the church of the early centuries, venerating the relics of the saints was a way of recognizing the sacrifices of those who went before them. Those first saints were the ones who faced persecution by the Roman authorities, they were the ones who spent long hours copying the Bible by hand so that it could be made available to the people, and they were the ones who formulated and clarified the beliefs we hold to this day. Their memory deserves to be honored because of the gift of grace that God displayed in their lives and the foundation they laid for our own faith two thousand years later.
However, there was one more very important reason that the early Church displayed and reverenced the bodies of the saints. It was to show the Roman and Greek peoples that the heroes of this new Christian faith were very different from the heroes of pagan mythology. Unlike Hercules, Odysseus and Zeus, the Christian saints were actual people who really lived. Jesus, Mary, the apostles and martyrs were not mythical figures but real flesh and blood who lived in human history. By honoring their remains and building churches at the places they were buried, not only was the memory of their sacrifice kept alive but the people were reminded that these saints were women and men no different than themselves. They had simply been given a powerful gift of grace to answer the call of Jesus in a heroic way.
For us two thousand years later, the memory of the saints is still important. Everything we cherish as Catholic Christians - the Bible, the Mass, our beliefs, our prayers - all have been given to us by God through the saints. We stand on their shoulders and build on the foundation of faith which they laid. They are examples to us of what it means to follow Christ. And they remind us of the great destiny that God has in store for us. Like the saints we are all called to spend eternity in heaven looking upon the face of God in all its splendor. Not only will our loved ones be there, but so will Jesus, the apostles, the Blessed Virgin Mary and the angels. Saint John speaks about this hope of ours very beautifully in today's second reading. Through baptism, we are rightly called "children of God". But in heaven, when we see God face to face, we will be transformed into the likeness of his glory. It will be a wonder beyond our power to imagine and describe. Whatever beauty we experience in this world is only a shadow of the beauty and majesty of the face of God. And so, as Saint John teaches us, we strive to keep ourselves pure from sin as we look forward in hope to the glorious destiny that awaits us.
Also, it is important for us to remember that the saints were human beings made out of flesh and blood who were no different than we are. They became Christians through the same baptism we received. They held the same beliefs we hold today. They received the same Holy Spirit which we received in our Confirmation. Like us, they had weaknesses and knew what it was like to be tempted. If they were different from us, it was because they loved God above everything else and so desired heaven that nothing on earth could tempt them to turn away from the source of their joy. Because of their great love for God, they were able to live the beatitudes which we read in today's gospel. The saints were people like Saint Francis of Assisi who gave up all the comforts of his father's house to become poor in spirit and so inherit the Kingdom of heaven. They were men like Saint Peter Claver who had such a hunger and thirst for righteousness that he chose to work among slaves. They were women like Saint Maria Goretti who so valued her purity of heart that she preferred being stabbed to having her virginity taken away from her. They were countless women and men throughout the centuries who so desired the rewards awaiting them in heaven that they endured insults, persecution and even death. Despite their heroic lives, they were just like us. God holds out to us the same gift of grace and the same rewards of eternal life that motivated the saints to live lives of faith, hope and love.
We are here today because of the saints. But they are not just heroes of the past whose time has come and gone. Rather as they stand before the throne of grace in heaven they continue to pray for us. We should each take advantage of these powerful intercessors and call upon them whenever we are in need or are facing temptation. If we befriend them and model our lives after them, they will not let us down. If we follow their example and desire the glory of heaven to any pleasure the earth can offer, then we can hold onto the hope of one day meeting them face to face as we look together upon God in all his splendor and majesty.