A small bit of bone, ‘believed’ to be a fragment of St Thomas Becket’s elbow, was taken today to Canterbury Cathedral, 845 years after he was murdered there.
St Thomas was killed by four knights inside the cathedral in 1170 after he fell out with King Henry II, and the bone somehow washed up in Hungary.
According to In-Cyprus, it was recently returned for a short tour of the UK, much to the delight of ghouls who get pleasure out of ogling bits of dead people. The site quoted the Catholic Church as saying:
The relic is to be the centrepiece of a week-long pilgrimage which finishes in Canterbury during the weekend of May 28 and 29.
The bone, held in a gold case, or reliquary, is on a week-long loan from Hungary but it is unclear how it arrived in the eastern European country. British media said the fragment could have been taken when Becket was re-buried in the cathedral in 1220.
The Church added:
It later became a symbol of Hungarian Catholic resistance to communism and is therefore of considerable importance for the Hungarian people.
Hungarian President Janos Ader and Cardinal Peter Erdo, the archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest, attended a Mass at Westminster Cathedral in London on Monday for Becket, who was made a saint by the Roman Catholic Church in 1173.
The fragment was then taken to the British parliament and Becket’s birthplace in Cheapside. It will be displayed in Westminster Cathedral and Canterbury Cathedral in Kent, southeast of London, before returning to Hungary.
This little charade got me wondering about the obsession the religious, Catholic in particular, have with relics. A little digging unearthed an entertaining article entitled “The Weird and Fraudulent World of Catholic Relics” by Rick Paulus, who revealed, among other things, that the bones of St Rosalia in the Italian town of Palermo – used in 1624 to successfully ward off the plaque – were not, in fact, those of a devout teenager who died in 1160, but belonged to … a goat. He quoted Paul Koudounaris, an author and photographer specialising in macabre art as saying:
In Sicily, they will fight you if you tell them the bones belong to a goat
In 2013, he published Heavenly Bodies, which details the story of relics retrieved from Roman Catacombs in the 17th century. Relics are everywhere in Catholicism. The head of St. Catherine is on display in Siena, and vials of breast milk straight from the Virgin Mary’s teat occasionally pop up. There are even rumors about the Holy Foreskin, a taut, wrinkly piece of the tiny Baby Jesus Himself.
I’ve photographed at least six different [skeletons of] St. Valentine. It’s one of the problems with the relic trade: There’s not a lot of fidelity.
It is Catholic doctrine that you cannot consecrate an altar in a church without the presence of a relic. [Relics are] fundamental to Catholicism.
This is probably a good place to go through the ‘magical logistics’ of relics. See, relics aren’t necessarily always body parts. They come in three different flavors: First-class relics are body parts, second-class relics are pieces of clothing or things the saints touched while they were alive, and third-class relics are objects that other relics have touched. A relic has power no matter where it falls on this hierarchy, which is why you have so many lying around, and so many folks praying to them. And therein lies one of the big rubs.
According to Catholicism, relics don’t have power. All power comes from the Man Upstairs Himself. You can partake of a kind of wizardly spell-summoning ritual by, say, standing in front of St Peter’s skull, holding a cup once held by St Peter, and addressing the saint. And maybe by doing this, you’ll prove to God you want to use St Peter’s life as an example for your own, and He’ll be into that, and He’ll kick down an assist. But that’s not how relic veneration works in practice.
Koudounaris chimed in:
People consider the relic itself as something of miraculous power. They’re not praying to God. They’re saying, ‘Toenail of St. Peter, heal me’.
That’s a big problem, seeing as it essentially turns Catholics into breakers of the very First Commandment, ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me’. Through the right prism, you can see how a particularly jealous God could see folks worshipping bones – some of which are from goats! – and get all sorts of vengeful. In fact, a huge part of Martin Luther’s Protestant schism was based on this theological flaw.
Protestants were complaining about Catholics worshipping the bones of dogs and animals. One church had something they thought was the brain of St Peter. It turned out to be a calcified potato.
Relics, then, are shortcuts. They’re visual mantras to focus the Catholic mind, a link between this world and the next. More than that, it’s the way the relics are housed, in Liberace-level opulence, where they get their value.
And Koudounaris concluded:
There’s not too much aesthetic appeal in a bone fragment. But reliquaries are works of art that, ipso facto, prove God’s power. There’s so much appeal in being able to say, look at this thing covered in glory, covered in gold, covered in beauty. This is a tangible bridge to God’s power, and divine will, and divine magic. That’s the real power of relics.
Hat tip: BarrieJohn (BBC report)