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Cover of the book, Saints Preserved
Blessed are the body snatchers

Posted on 11 September 2011, 3:49

My lifelong fascination with ‘the far side’ of Christianity easily includes the Catholic Chuch’s love affair with relics, although I must confess some sympathy with it all. It’s a deeply human thing to show respect to what remains of those we’ve loved after they’ve died and the photographs, letters and books of people in my family which have come down to me are beloved things.

So the early Christian practice of meeting at the gravesides of the martyrs and placing their portrait paintings in churches seems absolutely right to me, even though it’s not for everyone. But what about collecting bones and skulls, inspecting the bodies of dead saints and parading their body parts through the streets? Call me squeamish, but it just seems macabre and obsessive, not to mention terminally out of step with modern culture. Believing the Christian faith is hard enough these days without throwing in veneration of the big toe of St Bob the Bizarre.

Back in May this year, a syringeful of John Paul II’s blood, taken from him before he died, was venerated in his beatification mass in Rome, while another found its way to Krakow in Poland. His body has already been moved upstairs from the basement of St Peter’s into the church, and it’s a disturbing possibility that the Vatican’s resurrection men might be visiting his coffin for bits and pieces sometime in the future.

Which is why I was curious to get hold of a copy of a new book, Saints Preserved: An Encyclopedia of Relics, by Thomas J Craughwell. This is a book which knows where the bodies are unburied. If you want to get on a plane to go and venerate one of the many skulls of St George, the Holy Bench Jesus sat on during the Last Supper, the eye of Blessed Edward Oldcorne (don’t ask), the humerus of St Francis Xavier or even the skis of John Paul II, this is where to start.

I’m disappointed though that Craughwell doesn’t pass much critical comment on the history or authenticity of the relics he lists. Many of the saints’ relics are genuine, but all the claimed biblical objects must be regarded as frauds perpetrated on credulous believers.

It’s a fraud the Church has colluded in over the centuries. Take the Holy House of Nazareth, for example, where Jesus, Mary and Joseph lived, which was flown by a team of house-moving angels to Loreto in Italy in the 13th century. A virtual queue of Popes visited the house to bless it and bestow privileges, and only Julius II demurred by adding the words, ‘as is piously believed and reported’ to an account of the shrine’s legend.

However, there are some signs of change, as witnessed by the curious story of the Holy Prepuce (the foreskin of the infant Christ), which was the subject of another book, An Irreverent Curiosity, which I read a few months ago.

According to the book, written by American journalist David Farley, the Holy Prepuce was venerated every January 1st (the feast of the circumcision of Christ) by the people of Calcata, an Italian hill town. This went on for almost four centuries without a problem until 1900, when Pope Leo XIII took the highly unusual step of censoring all mention of the relic on pain of excommunication. The blessed foreskin had become an almighty embarrassment. But then things went further.

In 1983, the priest of Calcata told his congregation that the Holy Prepuce had been stolen from the shoebox in his wardrobe, where he had kept it for safety, and it has never been seen again. Locals believe it was snatched by Church officials to be ‘disappeared’ into the Vatican. Other uncomfortable relics, such as the breast milk of the Virgin Mary, have also been sent into retirement.

Like most traditional elements of Catholicism, the cult of relics has been enjoying something of a revival under John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Their Church has renewed its love of bloodstained shrouds and holy bones. For them, God moves not only in mysterious ways, but in medieval ones too.

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