Monetizing: Faith, Mysticism or Superstition

Relics in the Cathedral at Cadiz, Spain

According to the Santiago de Compestela legend the Apostle James brought Christianity to the Iberian Peninsula, then was beheaded in Jerusalem in 44 AD and his remains were brought to Galicia for burial. Conveniently in 813, guided by a bright star, a shepherd found the burial at Santiago de Compestela and took them to the Bishop of Santiago who declared them to be the remains of St. James and worthy of veneration and the industry of Santiago de Compestela and walking “The Way of St. James” was off and running. Kind of a middle ages version of televangelists like Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggert and Robert Schuller begging for money on television and sending trinkets in return, or the stores of the Vatican selling rosaries and mass-produced “Papal Blessings”, or the multibillion dollar Israeli tourism industry of Christians visiting “traditional” (that marvelous theological term of religious tourism) Christian sites.

St. James was good business for Santiago right from the start with 200,000 to 2 MILLION pilgrims a year trekking across Europe to visit the church and the relics of St. James. Hopefully all of you have either read PILLARS OF THE EARTH or seen the TV miniseries. You’ll recall that after the still-under-construction cathedral burns that the original skull of the saint is destroyed and the priest chooses to replace it with any old skull without telling anyone. That priest understood what I learned from Dr. John Piet in seminary: “History as a living fact consists not so much in what actually happened as in what people believe to have happened.” There you have it.

Thorn relic: a thorn from the Crown of Thorns worn by Jesus, now in the museum of the Cathedral in Cadiz, Spain

So at Santiago de Compestela you have the reputed relics of St. James. A relic is a body part of saint or venerated person, or an ancient religious object preserved for veneration as a tangible memorial. Everyone has them: Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shamanism & others. The word “relic” comes from Latin meaning “something left behind” so a reliquary is a shrine for housing relics. And if you visit the Treasury of any church in Europe you will find loads of relics: pieces of Saints (poor folks who because of their good deeds in life have never been allowed to rest in peace, pieces of the “original” cross (I suppose as opposed to Made-in-China copies), and even the spear that pierced the side of Jesus. (Actually there are at least three genuine spears. Must be a miracle!)

The most unusual relic: the Holy Foreskin of Jesus. I kid you not! Obviously, being Jewish, Jesus was “cut”. The Holy Foreskin of Christ first made an appearance in medieval Europe around 800 when King Charlemagne presented it as a gift to Pope Leo III. Charlemagne said it had been given to him by an angel. However, rival foreskins soon began to pop up all over Europe. All told, twenty-one different churches claimed to have the Holy Foreskin, often at the same time. Various miraculous powers were attributed to these foreskins. In particular, they were supposed to be able to protect women during childbirth.

Given the glut of Holy Foreskins, churches made efforts to have their foreskin authenticated by Church leaders as the sole genuine article. In the early 12th century, the monks of San Giovanni in Laterano, Rome asked Pope Innocent III to rule on the authenticity of their foreskin, but he declined to do so. Later, the monks of Charroux claimed their foreskin (well, not “theirs” personally, but the one they had in the reliquary) to be the only real one, pointing out that it apparently yielded drops of blood. This convinced Pope Clement VII (1523-1534) who declared theirs to be the authentic thing.

However, the Church eventually sought to extract itself from the Holy Foreskin controversy and adopted the view that all the rival foreskins were frauds. In 1900 it made it a crime punishable by excommunication to write or speak about the Holy Foreskin.

Some medieval theologians argued that all the Holy Foreskins necessarily had to be frauds since the actual Holy Foreskin had, they asserted, ascended into Heaven with Christ. The 17th century theologian Leo Allatius speculated that the holy foreskin had not only ascended into heaven at the same time as Jesus, and had become the rings of Saturn. Now you know.

The contemporary Roman Catholic Church has not been silent about all this. In 2010 Vatican theologian & Biblical scholar, Monsignor Pietro Principe, warned that veneration of relics risks replacing authentic faith with irrational superstition declaring that the object of adoration must remain God, not the saint. This is a tough sell for a church that has established a cult of Mary in which Mary is seen as the way to God vs. direct access. This concern with superstition is not new because already in 1545 at the Council of Trent the church declared, “Since holy martyrs and saints are now living with Christ and will be raised by Him to eternal life . . . veneration and honor are not due to the relics of the saints . . . And places dedicated to the memories of the saints are in vain visited with the view of obtaining their aid, are wholly to be condemned, as the Church has already long since condemned”.

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