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.