Jumble sales of the apocalypse: Shopping for relics
Simon Jenkins goes window shopping for relics
I visited Rome a few years ago, just after Papa Benny got the top job. Despairing of the gargantuan queue for the Sistine Chapel, I descended instead into the bowels of St Peter’s, where they have a lot of old popes in storage – each of them, I’m sure, hoping someday to ascend, at least into the basilica.
I paid my respects at the rather neglected tomb of dear Pope John Paul I, the “smiling pope” who sadly died in 1978 after just 33 days in office. But, in the middle of doing that, I got distracted by a hullabaloo at the tomb next door, where a scrum of pilgrims was jostling around the slab of new star arrival, Pope John Paul II.
The heavies of Vatican security were there in force, determined to keep the flock moving, but they faced Polish women brought up under 40 years of communism. Delving into their handbags, the women produced handkerchiefs, not to mop away tears, but to press against the walls of the tomb. I suddenly twigged that new relics were being minted before my eyes. They were low-grade items, as they hadn’t been in contact with JPII himself, but what went back into the handbags were Holy Hankies.
The thing about Holy Hankies is they can command a price. It’s always been thus: Relics and money go hand in hand. I checked the truth of this very easily a few days ago by window shopping on eBay. What I found would have set Martin Luther rotating in his grave like a cement mixer.
For just $98, I could have a piece of clothing worn by St Jude the Apostle. For $350, I could buy a piece of the True Cross. “This Cross has been divided in many parts now,” oozes the blurb with no apparent irony. (It reminded me of John Calvin’s celebrated satire on the relic trade, which observed that Europe had so many pieces of the True Cross, they could rebuild the ark.) Best of all, for $1,200, I could buy a glass locket containing pieces of the cradle of Bethlehem and the tomb of Christ. Praise the Lord and pass the credit card!
Geoffrey Chaucer, whose The Canterbury Tales is 600 years old, would have instantly recognised these eBay knockoffs: “You would have me kissing your old breeches, and swear they were the relics of a saint,” he mocked. Risible relics might seem like a medieval hangover, but the fraudulent old trade is doing very nicely, thank you.
One surprising development is the relic rock tour, with ancient body parts being lugged around the globe for the faithful (exactly like a Rolling Stones tour, then). Back in the day, the pilgrims travelled to the relics, but now the relics come to you, and millions get the chance to venerate them.
The thigh and foot bones of St Thérèse of Lisieux, a 19th-Century French nun, have had an extraordinary career since the turn of the millennium, playing to packed churches in Australia, Ireland, the Philippines, Russia, Iraq, the US, England and Wales. They even dropped in on South Africa for the 2010 World Cup. And now the saint’s writing desk has launched its own career, with a US tour last year. First stop: Las Vegas.
A quarter of a million pilgrims saw St Thérèse’s relics on the England and Wales tour in 2009. “Wherever they have gone,” said a spokesperson, “people have experienced conversion, healing, a renewed sense of vocation and answers to their prayers”. Teddy bears also took part, pressed up against the saint’s glass case.
The big tours this year included: A tubeful of St John Paul II’s blood, on a road trip between Boston and Florida; a bit of the ankle of St Toribio, a Mexican priest of the 1920s, touring California; and a statue of Our Lady of Fatima, which has embarked on a gruelling three-year tour. It can only be a matter of time before the skis of John Paul II take to the Alps.
Meanwhile, the shinbone of St Mary Magdalene, on a much-needed break this year, has been given a new reliquary. It’s exactly the right size for hand luggage on Ryanair. Also resting are the sandals of Blessed Mother Teresa.
If I have a bone to pick with relics, it’s that while they’re being updated with eBay listings and celebrity tours, they remain crookedly out of joint with the wider world of western culture. For my money, believing the Christian faith is hard enough these days without throwing in veneration of the big toe of St Bob the Bizarre.
This article was published in the November 2014 edition of Reform.