Where to begin? Read in The Guardian, from a couple of days ago, an article entitled, Saint Peter’s bones: Vatican exhumes old argument with plan to show ‘relics’. A few paragraphs in, we read what Lizzy Davis writes from Vatican City:
For the first time in nearly 2,000 years, fragments of bone held to be those of the apostle will go on public display
The story of how the bones came to be proclaimed Peter’s dates back to 1939, when Pope Pius XII ordered an excavation of an area below St Peter’s basilica thought to contain his tomb. The digging, overseen by a German monsignor, Ludwig Kaas, lasted 11 years and led, in 1950, to a stunning papal radio broadcast announcing "the tomb of the prince of the apostles" had been found.
But the pope was forced to admit his team had been unable to prove with certainty the bones were Peter’s.
Years later, Margherita Guarducci, an archaeologist and the first woman to lead Vatican excavations, began to question the original findings. She noted graffiti near the tomb reading Petr eni, which she believed was an abbreviation of Petros enesti, the Greek for "Peter is here".
She was told Kaas had been collecting bones out of concern that they were not being properly looked after, and putting them in boxes in a Vatican storeroom. Having located some bones she thought were the most interesting, she convinced Pope Paul VI to commission tests on them. These revealed, among other things, that they belonged to a robust man who died approximately in his 60s. To the outrage of Antonio Ferrua, the Jesuit father who had been the chief archaeologist on the initial excavation, Guarducci told the pope he should say the bones were believed to be Saint Peter’s. And, to the disquiet of Ferrua and some other Vatican experts, he did just that. Kaas, Ferrua and Guarducci have all since died.
Then, read over in a Guardian’s blog, Jonathan Jones on Art (a blog categorized under Art and Design which is further categorized as Culture, which means Other after News, Sports, Travel, Business and Weather):
Once, the western world was full of relics. The bones and skin, fingernails and even heads of saints were preserved, bought and sold, stolen and chreished. Relics of holy people and of Jesus Christ were at the heart of medieval Christianity. Today many relics have been discredited. Museums display empty reliquaries, crafted from gold and silver and laden with jewels – but bereft of the body parts that once gave them meaning.
Still, some relics are still cherished. They have survived sceptics, scientists and in some cases detailed exposure, to be revered as holy objects of awe. As the Vatican puts the bones of St Peter on display, here are the top 10 extant Christian relics, from holy shroud to sacred head.
I’ll list all ten but only offer Jonathan’s first description (because I’m biased):
- Holy Shroud of Turin: Despite being analysed by scientists and discredited as a medieval forgery, this centuries-old cloth bearing the image of a man is still seen by many as the burial shroud of Christ. Its modern fame began when a photographer noticed it looks more detailed in negative, implying the image itself is a reversed "negative" imprint of a body, which some see as a bit beyond the capacities of medieval forgers.
- Head of St Catherine of Siena
- Blood of St Januarius
- The Holy Foreskin
- The Tongue of St Anthony of Padua
- The Finger of St Thomas
- Relics of Saint-Chapelle
- Body of St Mark
- St Cecillia
- . Head of St John the Baptist
- Joe Marino sent along a link to some reaction by Fr. Alexander Lucie-Smith in The Catholic Herald’s blog space: What in the end is the point of relics?
But what in the end is the point of relics? They are revered to remind us of that great truth that the Word became Flesh, and that God entered history and left his mark on the world; that what we experience was once experience by God’s own Son, by His Blessed Mother, and by all the saints. The history of God and the history of the world are entwined. Thus relics are making a theological point, which, of course, the Guardian might find equally objectionable. But Christ really existed, He really came among us: to hate relics is in the end to hate the historicity of the Incarnation.
And this morning I’m having trouble answering that question when it comes to the Turin Shroud: what is the point? Is is just a reminder? What more?