In December of 1983 the Italian hill town of Calcata was shocked by the greatest theft in its known history.
It was the priest who had the thankless task of breaking the news to his aging congregation that their beloved relic had gone, and he did it with a bowed head and a stiff glass of the sacramental wine.
Some said it was demonic Satanists. Others pointed wiry fingers at the old priest himself. Some, quietly and in hushed voices, lest the old guard should hear, said it was the Pope himself.
The relic was, of course, Jesus’ shriveled foreskin.
Relics have played a pivotal role in the founding of churches all over the world, and in the great, but often arduous, pilgrimages made by laymen and clergy, alike.
These pilgrims traveled thousands of miles in their Birkenstocks to touch St Peter’s brain in Geneva (until it was revealed that it was actually a pumice stone, and perfect for the Pope’s calloused feet); or St George’s left leg in London (which, more than likely, was the shin bone of an Irish wolfhound); or the humerus of St Francis Xavier, in Macau (which was probably a wooden spoke from an early cartwheel, painted white for effect).
Of course, the challenge is always to find the real relic.
No less than fourteen churches, scattered arbitrarily around Italy, claim to possess Christ’s foreskin and have it on display. Fourteen penises would explain his popularity with his twelve disciples, Mary Magdalene, and the donkey. Pope Innocent III (which is the perfect name for a Pope) refused to rule on which artifact was a genuine relic, stating that only one person knew the truth and the Rabbi was keeping schtum. And that’s unfortunate, because no one wants to be kissing the shriveled-up foreskin of a total stranger.
And, more than sixty churches have claimed to store the breast milk of the Virgin Mary (at 4 degrees C or lower, I hope) who would feed baby Jesus in public, without covering up, and was nearly stoned for her disregard for decency. Glad things have changed there.
But, relics were predominantly a medieval quirk.
The Venerable Bede wrote, in the eighth century, of a visit by St Germanus of Auxerre to the shrine of Britain’s first martyr, St Alban. Never wanting to turn-up empty-handed, he brought with him bits of the twelve apostles (who all died with smiles on their faces) and placed them in St Alban’s grave, whether he liked it or not. Hence, St Albans now has expensive houses, a nice lake with ducks, and, of course, a huge cathedral.
It may then come as a surprise to you to hear that relic-ing is not a forgotten pastime.
Just a few years ago, hundreds of pilgrims gathered in Manchester, England, to view the bloodless and glass-encased heart of St John Vianney, the only parish priest ever to be canonized in the Catholic Church.
The Bishop of Shrewsbury, Rt Rev Mark Davies, who campaigned for the organ to be traipsed around from its permanent home in the dried-up body of St Vianney in Ars, France, apparently said this was a “moment to pray for fresh heart in the priesthood”. I suspect he meant that when this one disintegrates we’ll need another.
It is said that Vianney had spiritual powers including healing (but, of course, not for himself), prophesy (“I see my dried-up heart walking around a Manchester council estate … ”), and the ability to ‘read souls’ (teabags would’ve been so 1830).
Thousands of Catholics turned out for the relic’s first ever tour on British soil, the highlight of which was a mass for priests from the Diocese of Shrewsbury. Then the old heart went on a whirlwind tour of local churches.
It went to St Anthony’s, the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, and St Michael and All Angels, before taking tea at St Wilfrid’s in Northwich. Afterwards it went shopping in The Trafford Center (“I’d like an ‘I heart Manchester’ t-shirt, in extra-small, please”... ), then on to Shrewsbury Roman Catholic Church, St Mary’s College, and, finally, the Roman Catholic seminary in Sutton Coldfield. On Sunday – its day of rest – it grabbed its duty-free and headed back to France.
Mark Twain, who was one of the first tourists to visit Europe from the States (crossing the Atlantic on a paddle steamer), giggled himself stupid in 1889 about the furore over saints’ relics as he traveled from one ridiculously pious town to the next.
“We find a piece of the true cross in every old church we go into, and some of the nails that held it together. I would not like to be positive, but I think we have seen as much as a keg of these nails. Then there is the crown of thorns; they have part of one in Sainte Chapelle, in Paris, and part of one also in Notre Dame. And as for the bones of St. Denis, I feel certain we have seen enough of them to duplicate him if necessary.”
He also noted that certain relics have a precedent for authenticity: the imprint of Jesus’ face on a handkerchief in Jerusalem had to be real, he said, because he had already seen the same one in Genoa, Milan, Rome, and Paris, and they were all real.
One-hundred and fifty years after Twain’s observations and it’s still going on; peddling bits of dead humans and the articles they wore, in the belief that even gazing upon a saint’s accoutrements can bring spiritual richness.
While these are indeed astonishing curiosities, it may be those that seek comfort in the decaying matter of holy people that are the most curious of them all.