Recently the subject of relics came up between me and a Protestant classmate. The whole concept seemed strange to him. He knew that Catholics made use of the relics of the saints, of the belongings or portions of the bodies of the saints, in their devotions and worship, but he personally couldn't see the appeal or the reasoning for it. What's the deal, he asked? Where did it come from?
Thinking that my Protestant friend would likely respond well to a passage from the Bible supporting this practice, I referred to Acts 19:11-12, which says that "So extraordinary were the mighty deeds God accomplished at the hands of Paul that when face cloths or aprons that touched his skin were applied to the sick, their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them." The current Catholic practice is nothing different, I said. He responded with skepticism in his voice: "That's your scriptural warrant for relics?"
For a while I had been attempting to think of a pithy and illustrative way to describe the different approaches of Catholics and Protestants to Scripture; I think this encounter was a perfect exemplar. For our Protestant brethren, the Bible is the sole source for the faith. If some notion or practice cannot be explicitly (and usually repeatedly) found in the pages of Scripture, then that notion or practice, they conclude, has no basis for being believed. One almost gets the sense that the point in question must be spelled out in a divine command, or in the form of a proposition, in order to be accepted. So, even if the Protestant reads this passage, or Acts 5:15 (where Peter's shadow heals the sick), or Luke 8:44-47 (where the woman touches Jesus's garment and is healed), or all of them together, it seems he is not likely to conclude from them that the presence of a holy person, or a holy person's things, or a deceased holy person's body, can have positive spiritual effect. It's not explicit enough, it's not clear enough, it's not sure enough.
Of course, this attitude ignores an entire dimension of evidence: practice, or tradition. Surely if we would like to determine whether this use of relics is congruent with Christianity, it would be useful to ask whether Christians have always and everywhere made such use? Would that not be a strong indication that the practice is indeed Christian?
In this conception, the Scriptural stories are like snapshots of moments within the life of the Church; they are best understood and interpreted by those who witnessed them and were present, and by those to whom those witnesses gave their testimony. If you were to find pictures of some of your relatives on a beach trip, your aunt who was on the trip would be able to give you the context and significance of the events captured in the photos--who else was there, why a certain person wasn't there, what everyone was laughing about--much more accurately and precisely than a stranger who came along and began inspecting the photos, no matter how good the stranger's detective work and methods of analysis were.
For the Catholic, Scripture is like those snapshots, and the Tradition is like those family stories that give you the context for the pictures. The Catholic, having the rest of the story, is able to see beyond the picture's frame. The Protestant looks only at the picture, and misses the rest of the story.