Is it wise to look a gift relic in the mouth

Is it wise to look a gift relic in the mouth? The Catholic authorities in Padua have done just with the body in their cathedral, which is supposed to be that of St Luke, companion of St Paul and author of the Gospel that bears his name. Rather, one suspects, to their surprise, the results of scientific testing has shown that the body could well be St Luke’s. The DNA extracted from canine teeth is more similar to modern Syrian populations than to modern Greeks — St Paul, by tradition, came form Antioch, though he was certainly a Greek-speaker, and wrote his gospel in that language. Carbon-dating shows that the body cannot be later than 430AD, and might have been buried as early as 73AD. The most likely date is about 300AD, when the body was moved to Constantinople; but the possibility remains open that the bones in the coffin are whose they are supposed to be.

This is a clear contrast to the most famous relic in the world, the Shroud of Turin, which was shown to be a mediaeval fake when carbon dated in three independent laboratories in the 1990s.

So how many others of the innumerable relics around the world are genuine? And why are they so important to Catholic piety? The two questions are closely interlinked, because the worship of relics of the saints goes back almost as far as the history of Christianity and is intimately with the most distinctive Christian belief — that the bodies of the faithful would be resurrected at the last Trump, as Jesus had already been. It is fair to assume that all relics started off as genuine, because they were parts of the bodies of martyred saints. Lots of people before Christians had venerated holy objects, which had been touched or used by a God. The early Christians were the first people in the Mediterranean world to venerate the corpses of holy men, at a time when everyone else regarded corpses as unclean.

The point of this, according to the Catholic historian Eamon Duffy, was that it showed the strength of the early Christians’ faith in the resurrection. There could be no more dramatic expression of their belief that they would triumph over death than their veneration of something unquestionably dead in the belief that it represented someone unquestionably alive in heaven. Since it is the very definition of a saint that the Church has declared they are already in heaven, the relics of the saint are, to the faithful, extraordinary powerful evidence of the truth of their beliefs. "The reason the Pope is the Pope is that he is the custodian of the relics of St Peter" says Eamon Duffy: a visit to the Pope is still known as a visit "ad limina apostolorum" "To the threshhold of the apostles" and that is because it was a visit to the actual bones, of St Peter which would in due course be resurrected.

The pagan and Jewish enemies of the early Christians, also show the strength of this belief because of the lengths they went to destroy the bodies of martyrs so they couldn’t possibly be resurrected. The historian Eusebius, writing around 300 AD, records the martyrdom of St Polycarp in 156AD. His body was burnt but "We afterwards took up his bones more valuable than precious stones, and finer than gold, and laid them where it was fitting." About ten years later, some early martyrs in Lyons had their bodies exposed to wild dogs for six days, then the remains burnt, and the ashes dumped in the River Rhone. "Now let us see if they will rise again, and if their God can help them" said the persecutors.

One of the things these stories show is that the earliest relics, like the earliest saints, were attested by people who knew them. Sanctity was a local property in the early church. There was no central register of saints, or central procedure for making them, as there is today. In fact the veneration of saints’ relics threatened in some cases to undermine the authority of bishops, some of whom might not be as obviously saintly as their dead predecessors, and certainly not as practised in working miracles. This is what lay behind the practice of bringing the relics of saints out of the graveyards and into the churches, where they could be placed in suitably gorgeous shrines. Until recently, it was a requirement that ever Catholic church have a saint’s bones cemented into the altar and this tradition certainly goes back a long way.

That is one reason why the demand for relics soon outstripped the supply of Holy bones. In the East this problem was less serious, because there it was accepted from an early stage that a Saint’s body might be cut up into separate relics; but this only became accepted in Western Christianity during the dark ages, and the barbarian invasions which followed the collapse of the Roman empire. The Christianisation of the barbarian tribes meant that the demand for relics grew hugely — for each newly converted tribe would want some —while the Muslim conquest of traditional Christian heartlands destroyed the traditions which had guaranteed the authenticity of the early relics, and in some cases the bodies too. Muslim raider attacked Rome in the eighth century and desecrated the tombs of both St Peter and St Paul, which were in cemeteries outside the city walls. The bodies subsequently brought into the city churches may well have been mixed up.

The tomb of St Cuthbert, behind Durham Cathedral, when it was opened in ninettenth century, was found to contain some bones which were almost certainly those of the saint, who died on Lindisfarne in 687 AD. But his bones were only moved to Durham Cathedral in 99AD, after a succession of Viking raids, and the tomb was also found to contain an unrelated head, probably that of St Oswald, a contemporary King of Northumbria, but also a babies’ bones, which would have been sold to the Cathedral as those of the Holy Innocents, the children of Bethlehem massacred by Herod.

"With the conversion of northern Europe, the Germanic tribes were mad keen on relics, and at that stage, the dismemberment begins in a large way" says Dr Duffy: "and once you've got bits drifting around, the problem of authentication becomes nightmarish. There is a trade in relics, there are middlemen, and so on."

It is from the mediaeval period that the really bad reputation of relics can date. The mediaeval passion for relics is hard to credit. There is a story that St Hugh of Lincoln, shown an arm of St Mary Magdalene in Provence, tried to cut off a chink with his knife to take back to his cathedral: when that failed, he chewed some off with his teeth and brought it home that way. This was not felt to detract fro his own sanctity, and his magnificent tomb in Lincoln cathedral was itself a popular site of pilgrimage until despoiled at the Reformation. Cologne Cathedral holds the tomb of the Three Wise men, and Trier had the Holy Coat, the seamless garment worn by Jesus at his crucifixion — but so has the parish church at Argenteuil. . The True Cross was supposedly found by the empress Helena, mother of Constantine, in 326AD. By the time of the Reformation there were notoriously so many splinters of it being venerated that you could build a whole Noah’s Ark from them.

Some abuses persisted into the nineteenth century. The cult of "Saint Expedite", who was venerated in the Cathedral at Lisieux, in Normandy, among other places, was based around a statues showing the saint with a banner bearing the latin word "Hodie" — today. Unfortunately the whole thing stemmed from the church’s urgent need of relics before it could be reconsecrated, some of which were sent out from Rome bearing a label that said "spedito" — express — and this was taken to be the name of the saint within. It is still possible to buy medals of the saint from New Orleans.

Most modern Catholics are upset by such stories. Certainly, the modern church has turned its back decisively on mediaeval abuses. It is forbidden under pain of excommunication, for a Catholic to sell an authenticated relic now, and their movement from church to church requires permission from the Vatican. None the less, there is a convent in Rome where you may apply for relics, and where they are given away free — with a reliquary, which you must pay for.

Modern relics are divided into two classes , but this has nothing to do with their authenticity. Any that the church supplies are assumed to be authentic. The difference lies in whether you are buying an actual fragment of a saint’s body, which is a first-class relic, or something that has been touched or worn by the saint, which is second class. The lavishly decorated coffin if St Therese of Lisieux, which drew huge crowds on its recent trip around Ireland, would be a first class relic. A handkerchief once belonging to the saint would be a second-class relic.

The discovery that the tomb of St Luke might actually hold the body of the evangelist does present the Bishop of Padua with a tricky problem. The tests were only undertaken because the Greek Orthodox church had asked for the body back — it is supposed to have been brought to Padua during the crusades but the Saint actually died in Thebes, in Greece. At least there is no danger of him suffering the same fate as Catherine of Siena, whose body rests in Rome, but whose head, hacked off by local patriots, is a prized relic in the Dominican church in Siena.

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