Augustine had to address the question of relics, i.e. objects “left behind” (in Latin, relicta) by the saints, or even small fragments of their bones or hair. The public veneration of relics of the saints grew in importance and geographic scope during the last decades of the fourth century and the first decades of the fifth century. This was particularly under the impetus provided by Bishop Ambrose of Milan.
Relics as objects of religious veneration were an important feature in the religious landscape of the so-called Dark Ages and also the Middle Ages. The power of the spiritual world was thought to be more available in them than anywhere else. Every church, every altar, every noble family, every king, and every religious community had relics, and sometimes possessed very many of them.
The justification of the Catholic practice of the veneration of relics, which is indirectly suggested here by the reference to the bodies of the saints as formerly temples of the Holy Spirit and as destined hereafter to be glorified forever, was formally developed in the authoritative Roman Catechism drawn up by the Council of Trent immediately after the Protestant Reformation.
As grounds for its statements, the Roman Catechism refers to "the blind and lame are restored to health, the dead recalled to life." It pointed out that these are facts which "Saint Ambrose and Saint Augustine, most genuine witnesses, declare in their writings that they have not merely heard and read about, as many did but have seen with their own eyes ', (Ambrose, Letter 22:2, 17; Augustine, Sermon 286; City of God 22, S, and Confessions 9).
There subsequently arose significant opposition from some learned clerics. For example, Augustine himself was not fully convinced about relic cults until the final years of his life, at which time he took up the cause of the cults of Saint Stephen and other martyrs with some enthusiasm. In the year 415, by which time Augustine had been a bishop for twenty five-years, the bones of the martyr Stephen, the protomartyr mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles in the Bible, were discovered.
Some of the colleagues of Augustine travelled to Jerusalem and returned to North Africa with them. Little shrines and churches called "memoriae" containing sacred dust sprang up in country estates around Hippo. Augustine, who had once discounted relics as "folk religion", now found himself preaching to huge crowds drawn by a little bit of dust from where the bones had been found.
He saw the power of these memorial shrines, and attested to seeing miracles himself. He reported knowing of a thief in Milan who had felt compelled voluntarily to confess his deeds at the tomb of the saints. Augustine was moved to modify his previous suspicions against relics. Even so, care was required of a bishop, especially as much of this popular activity was not directly under his control and could be fanned by somewhat similar practices of people who were not Christians.
This could be, for example, the wearing by pagans (and, secretly, by some Christians) of decorations (amulets) for good luck and for warding off sickness. And against criticism from others about Christian relics, Augustine said that it was natural that people should treasure what is associated with the dead, like a ring or the garment of a parent.
Having begun in the fourth century, not all this spreading devotion to relics was appropriate and constructive for the building up of a sound Faith. The bishops reproved and corrected falsification and abuses. In this regard, Augustine denounced monks and criminals who dressed as monks to sell spurious relics of saints. (The Work of Monks, 43, 44, 55, 66, 101, 07)
There was potential for abuse and excess in the selling and obtaining of relics, the celebration the feast days of martyrs, the building of expensive private "martyria" (martyrs' shrines), and competitiveness in holding a fiesta for various martyrs. The construction of these "memoriae", the custom of celebrating anniversaries, and the energy involved in these initiatives testify to a great desire on the part of the Christians to praise the martyrs.
From the writings of Augustine, it is known that similar practices also took place, although in different forms, in almost all churches in Italy, Spain and Gaul. Augustine also wrote words of caution, "Let us not treat the saints as gods, we do not wish to imitate those pagans who adore the dead."
The Cult of Relics. An informative and readable web site that contains Augustine quotations from Confessions and City of God. http://employees.oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/arth212/relics.html