Lapsed Catholics, retired Catholics, fallen-away Catholics, recovering Catholics, abused and affirmatively angry former Catholics, perhaps have found some comfort in the early pontificate of Pope Francis I, a humble man whose first public act as Pope was to kneel before the throngs in St. Peter’s Square and ask the world for prayers and help.
The new Pope appears to be tolerant, kind and possessed of good humor. One can believe his smile; it reaches all the way to his eyes and conveys a sense of warmth and welcome. He appears to be a man more concerned with the spirit of the gospel (which, after all, was supposed to convey some “good news”) and less concerned with the letter of the law, the formal cosmetics attendant to the byzantine and labyrinthine ways of an entrenched and out-of-touch Curia, a wealthy, pompous and entitled brotherhood of Bishops, an out-of-favor, confused, ambivalent and all too irrelevant clergy.
Yes, for the church the old issues remain: contraception, celibacy, women’s ordination, divorce, homosexuality among the clergy and the faithful – social issues that have torn the church apart in much the same way similar issues have divided the United States into red and blue camps. This writer believes that such issues will be worked out, if ever, over time – a long, long time, and that whatever solution gets cobbled together will be due to generational change and the influence of time’s passage on point of view.
But today, as the old chestnuts continue to crack the teeth of “Cardinal This-or-That” or “Bishop So-and-So,” or the Bells-of-St.-Mary Luddites from EWTN, Pope Francis points to other considerations (some would say the very considerations that reside at the heart of the gospel), which have gone begging (so to speak) in the current adversarial climate of Catholics versus Catholics, Catholics versus the Vatican, Catholics versus former Catholics, Catholics versus the Clergy, the Clergy versus the Vatican, and so on. In word and deed Pope Francis has reminded the world that while disagreements, valid, or not, steeped in fear and loathing, or not, sap the energy of all, the poor remain poor, the weak remain weak, the powerless remain powerless, the lost have yet to be found, those in need still require assistance, and faith without kindness, generosity, tolerance, patience, good will and even humor is not worthy of the word.
If one truly desires to assess the deep down sincerity, validity, potential for good of any religion, religious figure, spiritual path, way of the peaceful warrior, etc., one need only examine its relationship with the poor, the disenfranchised, the homeless, the sick, the weak, the outcast and the powerless. Poverty and lack will always provide a window on what a church or denomination or spiritual way is about, and if the church has pews and exhorts its members to kneel, the sight gained through that window will demonstrate whether the church is worthy of even one person’s bended knee.
That having been said, it did come as a surprise, then, when over the weekend the Vatican announced it would place on public display for the very first time the bones of St. Peter, himself – the big guy among twelve big guys, loud and impulsive, passionate, full of juice, prone to exaggeration, a brave man who professed utter loyalty and betrayed that loyalty within a turn of the moon, a one-time coward who demanded to be crucified upside down because he was not worthy to die in the same manner as his Lord, a fisherman plucked from obscurity, who, with what must have been divine help, became a great man, and, although he didn’t know it at the time, the Holy Roman and Apostolic Church’s first Pope.
The relics themselves are eight bone fragments of a robust man in his 60’s or 70’s, each fragment about one inch in length. The eight bones have not always been treated as venerable objects. When first discovered in 1940 they were hidden away to gather dust in a storage box. However, on further examination of the excavated site and discovery of graffiti near the excavated tomb, which graffiti read: “Petros eni,”and which could mean “Peter is here,” Pope Paul VI circa 1971 became convinced that the bone fragments did belong to St. Peter and that they had been identified “in a convincing manner.” And with that eight little bones that had gathered dust in a storage bin became holy relics worthy of veneration.
Now one must ask: Does this most recent ceremony and public display signal the wholesale return of relics and the business of relics with its solicitations, pilgrimages and promises of – yes – miracles? Or did this weekend ceremony merely mark the end of the Benedict XIV’s year-long initiative to mark the 50th anniversary of the beginning of Vatican II? Are the little bones nothing more than curios dropped into the laps of the faithful, a little something extra, a nice parting gift, for those who traveled “all that way” and who might need a little something extra to memorialize their visit to St. Peter’s.
Relics were once a backbone (pun intended) of the Holy Roman Church. Bones and ears and toes and fingers and heads and hands and organs of every stripe were a significant profit center in the wake of the Counter Reformation’s tactical de-emphasis on indulgences for sale. But with the notion of profit entered the notion of slick dealings, fraud and confidence games. Sadly, those most desirous of miracles are nothing if not gullible. Predators note this well and act upon it: Relics for sale. Salvation for sale. Touch the bones and heal your child.
In and of themselves, there’s nothing wrong with items, objects, mementos, curios, materials, hard, real and present, be they relics, works of art or splinters of the true cross (which, if the owners thereof are to believed, has given up enough wood to stock any number of lumber yards in the northwest territories) to assist any person’s contemplation, prayerful or not. Even St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of an Order known for its intellectual skepticism, encouraged the faithful to use whatever might be helpful in one’s lifelong attempts to know, love and serve God.
And miracles do happen. Frankly they happen all the time. One might say this whole freaking thing – humanity being here, conscious, sentient, aware of questions such as these, is the biggest miracle of all. Miracles are serious affairs and there are more to them than the happy endings of holiday stories. In all likelihood there isn’t a reader out there who hasn’t experienced the intervention of the divine into his or her life. Yes, miracles and mysteries abound, but that having been said, this writer does not believe that God is a top hat magician with a packet of certified authentic relics, which, when placed just so, subject to incantations and rituals, will alter the laws of nature to benefit a petitioner or pilgrim in need.
The human need to objectify the ineffable, to give it form and physical weight, is understandable. People are creatures with five honed senses, and the abstraction inherent in such things as spirits, miracles, angels, mysteries and the great unknown that awaits everyone, begs for something concrete to ground both the aspiration and the aspirant. But that way also lies dragons, for once a relic is deemed to possess power, then the owner of the relic will soon be deemed to possess power. And once the owner is so empowered, he will do what he can to husband and protect and benefit from that power, placing the necessary distance that will always exist between the powerful and the powerless; rendering the powerless fearful, desirous, unworthy, willing to bend their knees, to jump through hoops. To limbo under the yoke, to give of themselves, to give from their lack, to feel inadequate if not sinful, to struggle to be good enough, to hope for a seat at the table when men in robes and skull caps trot out inch long human bones as if the Pope were a barker and the Church was a Fun House.
No, in and of themselves, there’s probably nothing wrong with relics, but the business they can inspire and the false hope it promises is one of the first of many stops on the road to missing-the-point.
By Michael Hogan