My home is chock full of them.   From my mom, mostly, but from other people as well (no canonized saints, and no body parts of anybody).  These days, I’m discovering the supply-and-demand element of the relic world.  When someone dies, suddenly everything becomes the Last One.  The Last Dress LP will ever get from her grandmother. The Last Birthday Card I ever got from mom.  And so on.  Something I’d not exactly anticipated, and which is causing certain spells of minor insanity.  Of a comic sort despite the obvious sadness. 

In the process I’m discovering is what it means to "venerate".  Because we do, in fact, venerate our various non-holy relics. 

For example I have the handbell my great-great-grandmother would ring as a warning signal when her dozen or so children got too loud after bedtime, and it gets special treatment.  If I’d gotten it off E-Bay (they’re currently selling for about $10, plus shipping) I’d let the kids use it.  Brass holds up, no problem.  But since I got it for free — but from a great aunt, as a wedding present — it stays up on a shelf in the Adult Study Where No Children Are Allowed (Most Of The Time), and I get to yell at the kids if they play with the bell.  (And then repent for the yelling.  I know.)

It’s special to us.  We treat it with reverence.


Per another relic of mine — my dad’s collegiate dictionary — to venerate is to regard with reverential respect, or with admiration and deference.  It can be religious, or not.   I’ll get back to the religious question in a minute.

We don’t live in a culture where displays of respect are grand and outward.  We do have them, but we are so used to them that we think it can’t possibly be "veneration".   For example, my favorite Evangelical Seminarian Friend wouldn’t dream of phoning up Dr. Norman Geisler — a professor and apologist he holds in high regard — and saying, "Hey Norm, how about I buy you a beer?" 

ES, as down-to-earth and egalitarian of a guy as you could hope to meet, will call the man "Dr. Geisler", and would never dare to presume to extend any kind of personal invitation.  If perchance ES was able to go hear the professor speak, he might approach with a question afterward only by prefacing his question with a few comments of gratitude or admiration ("thank you so much for coming to speak here tonight" "I have learned so much from your books") , and perhaps an apology for bothering the learned man with a mere second-year student’s probably-simple question.

It’s admiration.  It’s deference.  It’s a profound respect.  It’s veneration. 

Not bowing to floor, nor composing flowery odes about not being fit to polish the man’s shoes, but still, ES would display genuine deference towards the professor.  And as much as reading Geisler’s anti-catholic apologetics makes me want to toss books across the room, I’d be mortified if ES treated Dr. Geisler any other way.  

Now my veneration of the bells and the dictionary is not as profound as the veneration due to the relics of a canonized saint.  And ES’s veneration of Dr. Geisler is not as great the veneration due to St. Peter.   But both of those far lesser attitudes of reverence are the same kind of thing that catholics engage in towards holy relics, and towards holy men and women.

This is important to understand: same kind, differing only in degree.


Evangelicals have a legitimate fear of idolatry.  That is, of treating as God something that is not God.  And somehow evangelicals have gotten the idea that "veneration" is a form of worshipping God. 

To start with, because we live in a society that doesn’t admit when it venerates — except by way of humor or hyperbole — the word "venerate" has taken on a purely religious meaning.  And from there an assumption is made that if something has to do with religion, it must be something about worshiping God. 

Not a bad guess, but inaccurate.  (It would be like assuming that if something has to do with cars, it must be related to the engine.)  We know that many other things associated with religion — hymnals, pews, pot-luck dinners — are not God.

"Veneration", however, tricks us up, because it involves showing respect, admiration, and deference towards something.   We worry we should only have such feelings towards God.  

To clear up the difference between "veneration" and "worshiping God" try this:  Imagine a hymn that goes, "Jesus, I respect, admire, and defer to you!"  Add any other praise you like, so long as it is something a mere human did or could do. Put it in the most poetic language your culture allows, for a mere man.   (So many northerners thing "sir" and "ma’am" sound like groveling.  Here’s its just simple civility.)

Still, it falls flat.  Makes for good praise of a mere man  — high praise, for a mere man.  But heretical if addressed to God Himself.

The elements of mere veneration are not the same as the worship due to God.   Not the same at all.