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'Holy' relics still luring the masses

PADUA, Italy — Each day in St. Anthony's Basilica, thousands of visitors gaze at the tongue, jawbone and vocal chords of the "saint of miracles" or stand by his tomb, palms pressed to the cool marble, eyes closed in prayer.

The Roman Catholic world abounds in relics, its churches stuffed with hanks of hair and bits of bone, lopped-off heads, fingers, tongues and toes. Grisly curiosities to some, tangible reminders of holiness to others, these body parts are inseparable from the church's turn-of-millennium revival.

Veneration of relics, a tradition nearly as old as Christianity, has declined since the Middle Ages but is now enjoying something of a comeback under a tradition-minded pope. Rome's relic-filled shrines attracted nearly 25 million Holy Year pilgrims in 2000. Five million visited St. Anthony's, and more than one million filed past the Shroud of Turin, held by some to be Christ's burial cloth.

Relics have been big draws in holy years since the church started celebrating them in 1300. The veil of Veronica, which like the shroud bears what believers say is a likeness of Christ, was the star of 1350. On display every Sunday at St. Peter's Basilica, it brought crowds so huge that many pilgrims were crushed to death.

Today's pilgrims are more orderly, but Holy Year 2000 offered extraordinary moments. One day, in what looked like a scene from a Fellini movie, a helicopter swooped into St. Peter's Square bearing the body of St. Rita of Cascia, the 15th century "saint of desperate and impossible causes."

Pope John Paul II's own reverence for relics has done much to invigorate their veneration. He was on hand to welcome St. Rita, presented the Armenian Catholic church with a thighbone from St. Gregory the Illuminator, and prayed before the Shroud of Turin.

The Greek Orthodox Church displayed a fragment of Christ's cross last year in its battle against government plans to drop religious affiliation from identity cards.

Nor is the fascination with relics just a religious matter. The possessions of secular idols such as Marilyn Monroe or Princess Diana fetch small fortunes.

"To keep an object as a reminder is very human," said the Rev. Peter Gumpel, a Rome-based Jesuit theologian, historian and leading expert on saints. "It's beyond religion. It's something inherent in our nature."

Relics were a craze all over Europe and the Holy Land in the Middle Ages. Saints were medieval celebrities and pilgrimages the tourism of the times. A prized relic — manna from heaven, a Holy Grail, milk from the Virgin Mary's breast — could put a provincial city on the map.

Saints were dug up, dismembered and distributed. Princes and kings fought over relics, monks and nuns purloined them, artful counterfeiters made fortunes hawking their wares.

Commerce in relics hit a high point in the 12th century when Crusaders stripped Constantinople, Jerusalem and Antioch of their most revered relics and hauled them to Rome.

Relic skullduggery, like relic veneration, never died out.

In 1981, thieves broke into a Venetian church and stole the remains of St. Lucy, famous for plucking out her own eyes because a suitor admired them. Seven years later, extortionists made off with the mummified body of a 13th-century saint, Pope Celestine V.

In 1991, four masked bandits entered St. Anthony's basilica in the northeastern city of Padua, threatened worshippers at gunpoint and smashed a glass case. They made off with "the sacred chin" — St. Anthony's jawbone and teeth — which is encased in a spooky, jewel-encrusted reliquary with a crystal sphere in place of a head.

In all three cases, the relics were recovered with scant explanation and assurances that no ransoms were paid. An investigator in the jawbone heist said years later that the culprit was a Venetian mobster hoping to trade the relic for clemency.

Relics have been the target of reformers as well as rascals.

Martin Luther, who launched the Protestant Reformation, took aim at the cult of relics in a 1520 pamphlet sneering at the famed collection of the archbishop of Mainz, Germany, for including "three flames of the bush of Moses on Mt. Sinai" and "two feathers and an egg from the Holy Ghost."

An even more ambitious collector was Helena, who came to Christianity late in life but quickly made up for it with a free-spending pilgrimage to the Holy Land some 300 years after Christ's crucifixion. As the mother of Constantine the Great, Rome's first Christian emperor, she could afford it.

The crucifixion relics the octogenarian empress brought home are some of Christendom's most famous. Many are at Rome's Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme: bits of the crown of thorns, nails and splinters from the cross and a sign from the cross mocking Jesus as "king of the Jews" in several languages.

She also acquired an entire marble staircase said to be from the palace of Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect who sentenced Christ to death.

On a cold winter afternoon as Holy Year 2000 waned, pilgrims were packed four deep on the staircase in a chapel in Rome. Shoulder-to-shoulder, haunch-to-haunch, nose-to-foot, they crawled up the 28 steps of Pilate's palace on their knees, praying aloud.

Nearby, at Santa Croce, people gazed at Helena's crucifixion relics. Some pressed their fingers against the protective glass, then touched their lips or hearts and made the sign of the cross.

Other Roman churches boast pieces said to be from the infant Jesus' manger, the post against which he was whipped, and the lance that pierced his side before he died.

While Catholic teaching permits the veneration of relics and some prelates encourage it, the church forbids trading in relics. It also rejects miraculous powers attributed to relics, which are said to heal the sick, to raise the dead and to levitate.

"Every superstition must be removed and all filthy lucre abolished," the Council of Trent declared half a millennium ago. The policy still stands.

Authenticity is a more delicate matter.

"A classic example is the True Cross," Gumpel, the theologian, said. "People have figured out that if all the relics were real, the cross would have had to weigh about 3,000 kilograms." That's three tons.

The church deals gently with suspect relics, quietly dropping some from inventories, removing them from display or letting them fade into obscurity.

Relics that still attract deep veneration, however, are often left in place. Radiocarbon dating suggests the Shroud of Turin is a medieval fake, for example, but faith trumps science; believers venerate it still.

One set of relics about which there are no doubts are those of St. Anthony. His body has been in the custody of Franciscan friars here since his death in 1231, entombed in an altar.

The tomb has been opened twice, once in 1263, when his tongue, reportedly still fresh and pink, was removed, along with the jawbone, complete with lower teeth.

The tongue, now mottled gray and black, is displayed in an ornate golden reliquary, along with his jawbone and vocal cords — the physical apparatus that gave voice to Anthony's famous sermons.

The vocal cords, a knobby brown lump, were removed when the tomb was opened in 1981 in the presence of a pontifical commission and a team of University of Padua scientists who spent six weeks examining the 750-year-old remains.

Dr. Vito Terribile Wiel Marin, head of the Institute of the History of Medicine at the university, was among them. To this day, he keeps the jacket he wore during the examinations sealed in plastic in his home "as a sort of relic."

"It was covered with the dust of the saint," Terribile explained in an interview.

Anthony was a mesmerizing preacher and a miracle-worker. A fellow friar once found him cradling the baby Jesus in his arms. He persuaded a donkey to take communion, and he reattached a severed leg.

Today he is one of the most beloved of saints. Hundreds of thousands of people write him every year; some even send him birthday cards. Bouquets of flowers perfume his basilica; abandoned crutches give silent thanks for cures. There are photos of babies and brides, of wrecked cars, hundreds of silver votives. All bear the same words: "Thank you for grace received."

"People think of him as a friend, a big brother," said the Rev. Domenico Carminati, the soft-spoken rector of the basilica. "The relics aren't magic ... People are simply asking St. Anthony to give them a hand, to stand by them, to protect them."


On the Net: New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia: newadvent.org/cathen (search for 'relics' under 'R')