As a new centre to study relics opens in Oxford, Fr Matthew Pittam takes a look at some more unusual examples
The University of Oxford is to become a world leading centre into the study of religious relics following the launch of a new department. This ground-breaking centre, based in Keble College’s Advanced Studies Centre, is to be composed of computer and medical scientists as well as historians, classicists and theologians. Such an interdisciplinary approach builds upon work that has been undertaken by the university’s archaeological school since the 1980s.
Past achievements within the university have included the dating of the shroud of Turin, which involved study in three laboratories and the radiocarbon accelerator unit. This new unit is the first time that such a wide-ranging field of experts has been brought together in this way.
The use of relics in Christian worship is ancient but for some it represents the worst excesses of superstition.
Here are some of the more unusual, quirky and controversial relics.
The head of St Catherine of Siena – San Domenico Basilica Siena, Italy
St Catherine of Siena lived a pious life after experiencing a vision of Jesus at the age of seven.
Her parents had arranged her marriage to a local man. In order to resist this attempt and preserve her virginity, she cut off her hair and scalded her head with hot water.
She died in Rome in 1380 and the people of Siena asked for her body to be returned home but were refused. Some of her devotees secretly dug up her body and severed her head, placing it in a bag.
There is a legend that when the roman guard apprehended those who had taken the head, all that was found in the bag were rose petals.
When they finally arrived in Siena the rose petals had miraculously turned back into St Catherine’s head.
Today St Catherine’s head can be seen alongside her thumb and attracts large number of pilgrims each year. Her body remains in Rome and her foot is claimed to be in a reliquary in Venice.
The Holy Prepuce (Christ’s foreskin) – stolen in the 1980s
Since the Middle Ages 19 churches have claimed to possess the foreskin of Jesus. It is often said that St Catherine of Siena wore one as a ring.
The earliest recorded relic of the Prepuce was when Charlemagne presented one to Pope Leo III in the year AD 800.
Charlemagne claimed that it had been brought to him by an angel while he was praying in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
In 1527 the relic was stolen from the Basilica of St John Lateran, during the Sack of Rome. It was recovered from a soldier’s prison cell in 1557.
Later the relic was reposed in Calcutta, where a 10-year indulgence was attached to making a pilgrimage of veneration.
The last time this particular prepuce was seen was during a procession on the Feast of the Circumcision in 1983. Shortly afterwards it was reported stolen.
St Antonius’s body – Church of San Marco, Florence, Italy
St Antonius’s body was said to be incorruptible. After his death in 1459, his body was left exposed for eight days and didn’t apparently show any signs of decomposition.
Following this miracle, his body was placed in a glass coffin to allow his many followers to venerate him.
During his life he was renowned for his piety and his frugal lifestyle.
When he was offered an archbishopric by Pope Eugene IV he refused and had to be threatened with excommunication before he would accept.
He entered the Dominican Novitiate with Fra Angelico (the artist) and Fra Bartolommeo (the miniaturist) where all three were under the directorship of Blessed Lawrence of Ripafratta.
St Antonius’ Body is preserved under an altar in San Marco church today.
Blessed John Henry Newman – The Oratory of St Philip Neri, Birmingham, UK
The exhumation of Venerable John Henry Newman’s body was surrounded with great controversy.
He had been buried at Rednal cemetery, near Birmingham, in a shared grave with his lifelong friend Fr Ambrose St John, as had been his wish.
The planned exhumation of his remains were finally agreed by the Ministry of Justice as a special case, as English law prohibits the removal of a body from a graveyard to a church tomb.
The debate became heated, with human rights activist Peter Tatchell accusing the Catholic Church of “moral vandalism”.
Permission was eventually granted on 11 August 2008, the 118th anniversary of Newman’s death.
Upon exhumation, Newman’s body was not in a lead coffin, as had been anticipated, and his remains had completely decomposed.
The only artefacts retrieved, were an inscription plate and cloth. These relics were added to locks of hair and other items already possessed by the Oratory in Birmingham.
They are now on display for public veneration in a special chapel.
The hand of St Francis Xavier – Gesu, Rome
Born in 1506, he was a co-founder of the Society of Jesus. St Francis Xavier was one of the first seven Jesuits to take vows of Chasity and obedience in 1534. He was a prolific preacher and teacher, most notably in India although he also had an influence in Japan and Borneo. He was beatified by Pope Gregory XV on 12th March 1662.
Initially he was buried on a beach on Shangchuan Island, in the South China Sea. His incorrupt body was then taken to Portuguese Malacca and buried in St Paul’s Church. In 1553 St Francis body was exhumed and moved to the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Goa. His reliquary was constructed to reflect Italian and Indian styles and has four sides depicting different scenes from the Saint’s life.
St Francis’ right forearm was detached in 1914 and moved the main Jesuit Church in Rome, The Gesu. His left arm was initially going to be sent to Japan but was given to the Cathedral Church in Macau due to the religious persecution in Japan. Since 1978 the left hand has since been kept in various locations.
My scepticism and slight aversion to relics has been challenged over the last few years. During the consecration of our Church, I and other members of the congregation were moved by the sealing of the relics into the altar.
This simple ceremony really gave a sense of continuity with the early church and helped us to feel a spiritual link to the three saints whose relics were reposed. In addition, the UK tour of St Therese of Lisieux’s relics in 2009 and St Don Bosco’s in 2013 were unexpectedly significant occasions.
These events attracted many thousands of pilgrims and demonstrated the evangelistic opportunity that relics can provide. In my work as a school chaplain, I find that the one thing that most fascinates pupils about the school chapel are the relics. These relics provide an opportunity to talk and share the faith of the saints with students who would ordinarily switch off.
I remember a friend telling me how he had retrieved relics from a presbytery bin when the parish priest had disposed of them in the early 1980s. This just shows how relics have been regarded by many more recently.
Hopefully, the new Oxford Centre for the Study of Relics will help further advance and promote the use of relics in the Church and encourage us to think afresh about their importance. Whilst studies will undoubtedly identify some relics as counterfeit or misidentified, others may be confirmed as originating from the time and place where the holy person lived. It will certainly give the veneration of relics more credibility.