Monday, September 07, 2009


One day in June of 594, Gregory the Great had to excuse himself from his daunting daily responsibilities to field a letter from Constantina, Empress of the Romans and still, in theory, Gregory's temporal superior. The Empress was erecting a glorious church for St. Paul in the middle of the palace environs in Constantinople, and she'd made an extraordinary request of the Bishop of Rome: the Apostle's head.

Gregory must have found the Empress's letter exasperating. It was only a year earlier that he'd negotiated a fragile truce with the barbarian Lombards (with virtually no help, it must be said, from the imperial administration). Protected from their pillaging, the shrunken, tattered city had finally begun to stabilize under Gregory's tireless ministrations. Now, though, the wife of the distant Augustus, who had never set foot in Rome, sought to relieve the former capital of one of its most precious assets.

Gregory's response was carefully worded:
Being desirous of receiving commands from you, by exhibiting the most ready obedience to which I might the more provoke your favor towards me, I am all the more distressed that I neither can nor dare do what you enjoin.

The Apostles, Gregory explained, did not take kindly to having their relics carved up into lots and sent hither and thither. Most people who'd attempted to do so, or who'd even looked as though they might be considering it, had been struck down for their presumption. These were real, Roman, saintly relics, you see; not cheap Eastern knockoffs:
For certain Greek monks who came here more than two years ago dug up in the silence of night near the church of Saint Paul, bodies of dead men lying in the open field, and laid up their bones to be kept in their own possession until their departure. When the monks were arrested and questioned about this act, they confessed that they were going to carry the bones to Greece to pass for the relics of saints.

He offered the Empress the consolation prize of some iron filings from the chains that St. Peter had worn on the way to his crucifixion. Even these, though, could not be guaranteed:
For, while many come frequently to seek a blessing from these same chains, in the hope of receiving a little part of the filings, a priest attends with a file, and in the case of some seekers a portion comes off so quickly from these chains that there is no delay: but in the case of other seekers the file is drawn for long over the chains, and yet nothing can be got from them.

I suspect the Empress's reply may have included a tart instruction for the priest to please apply the file for as long as necessary, thank you very much.

Gregory thus managed to preserve the integrity of Paul's remains, and with them, the uncompromised sanctity of one of Rome's most celebrated shrines. That sanctity was highly valuable, not only as an attraction for pilgrims and their money, but as a religious buttress to the growing temporal authority of the Pope.

It's not surprising, then, that as Christianity's roots deepened across Europe, the pressures of supply and demand eroded Gregorian inhibitions against the packaging and distribution of saint parts. Some of these transfers were made with the approval of prevailing authorities. Many others, including incidents of so-called furta sacra (holy theft) were not, giving rise to a black market in real and bogus relics that defied the laws (CT 9.17.7) of the Emperor Theodosius and persists to this day.

Regardless of their provenance, relics were not borne casually. They had to be carefully labeled and wrapped in fine silk in keeping with the requirements of reverentia. This practice, too, has survived, and has itself been translated over to the reverence of modern, secular martyrs, as we learn today from the New York Times:

As the anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, approaches on Friday, pieces of the World Trade Center rubble from that day have never been more accessible. A new campaign is under way to speed up the process and increase the volume of giving away pieces of steel big and small from the debris.
The requests are deferential. “All we need is a 1-foot-by-1-foot-by-4-feet tall piece of steel,” read a letter from the mayor and the president of a memorial in Glens Falls, N.Y. “It’s a small piece of steel to fill our big hearts.”
On Friday, Jack Sommer, the president of Prospect Hill Cemetery in York, Pa., came to Hangar 17 to collect a piece, watching as a cemetery employee strapped a chunk of steel, concrete and gnarled rebar to a trailer. In an added flourish, the men had spread an American flag under the steel. A Port Authority police car escorted them out.

Photo credit: dweekly

1 comment:

RWMG said...

Not to mention the fake moon rock presented to a Dutch museum by US astronauts that was mentioned in the news recently: