Wednesday, September 26, 2007


A cassock worn by Pope John Paul II is being cut up into 100,000 pieces to be sold as relics, so says a recent news report.

I have no idea why anybody would ever pay for such a thing. But then, veneration of relics is a venerable old tradition. Every chapel, no matter how small, poor, or insignificant, has a secret treasure trove including a few small envelopes, each labeled Tertiary Relic of Saint Somebody of Somewhere (or something to that effect) and if you look inside the envelope you see a tiny fragment of some unidentifiable substance. If you should replace this fragment with a bit of dryer lint, nobody would know the difference. In fact, for all anybody knows, these fragments might actually be nothing but dryer lint.

Documentation of the Catholic Church is ambivalent as to whether these relics have magic powers. Officially they say no, a lesser (material) cause cannot have a greater (spiritual) effect. But somehow, the official wording gets twisted and obfuscated to mean yes, if you pray in the presence of a relic your prayer is answered faster. The Episcopal church closely follows Catholic practice, and the Orthodox churches appear to be even more heavily into relics. Most Protestant denominations try to downplay the importance of relics.

Now, here's the hilarious part. Apparently several fraudulent relic-mongers are all set to cut up just any old cloth and sell the pieces as relics from the late Pope's cassock, and the Catholic church is warning believers to beware of these fakes. But how can you tell of you've got a fake? Can its magical powers be scientifically tested?

Veneration of relics is not limited to religion. In the famously over-hyped Tour de France bicycle race, for instance, when a rider finishes all the water from his water bottle he flings it aside and his team's support van pulls up alongside and the support person hands him a new bottle of water. Meanwhile, the spectators pounce on the empty bottle in a mad melee and tear it to shreds (not to mention coming close to tearing each other to shreds in the process) just to possess a piece of it. I have no idea what it would be good for. Suppose somebody shows me a small unidentifiable scrap of plastic and brags, "This is a piece of Lance Armstrong's ninth water bottle from Day Seven." Am I supposed to be impressed?

Now some relics make sense. Pictures of long-dead ancestors, if you know who they are. Sports trophies that represent actual victories. Framed diplomas, if you earned them the honest way. Perhaps maybe nails and bricks, retrieved from the ashes of college buildings destroyed by fire, handed out as mementoes to alumni who have made donations for the replacement building.

But a tiny snicket of cloth alleged to be a piece of some dead pope's cassock? Come on! You'll never sell me one!

No comments: