If we had told you that we were going to see a sample of the blood and some strands of hair of someone long dead you might think this at least bizarre and, at most, macabre. This is precisely what Madame and I did today, Saturday 22 October 2022. The occasion was the installation of the relics of Saint Pope John Paul II at St. Patrick’s Church, East Gosford, NSW.
(Relics: a part of a deceased holy person’s body or belongings kept as an object of reverence).
While this occasion might not be relevant to most peoples’ lives, for the 1.3 billion believers in ‘The One True Church‘ (somewhere in the region of 15% of the world’s population) it is significant. This post is not the place to become involved in world religion. There would be those among the remaining 85% who might dispute the words in italics.
The two relics were placed in a red reliquary, a special cabinet in other words; the flower display chosen to match the colours of the Vatican flag.
Coincidentally, today, the relics of St Bernadette of Lourdes, described by priests as a “celebrity” among Catholic saints, are on their first ever UK tour, starting at St. George’s Cathedral, Southwark. On a raised platform near the altar stands an ornate golden casket with its own spire and stained-glass frontage. Inside are fragments of bone and tissue taken from the body of Bernadette Soubirous, a French peasant who reported seeing multiple visions of the Virgin Mary in Lourdes in the south of France in the 1850s. Does rather trump a strand of hair and drop of blood.
Reliquaries became an art form, particularly in the early and late Middle Ages; beautiful examples are commonplace and appear occasionally at auction rooms, like the two below.
Christianity isn’t the only religion in which relics are venerated. Islam and Buddhism also draw upon the spiritual connection that relics provide. Eastern reliquaries are found in buildings expressly designed around the relics, whereas Christian churches are built for worship first.
When Roman Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official religion in 313, he also decreed that every church should keep a saintly relic. Churches, monasteries and convents were established doing good works, and gathering relics. Among them were bits of wood that allegedly belonged to the cross upon which Christ was crucified and nails that were believed to have been driven into his feet and hands. Cynically there are those who say that there are enough pieces of the original cross to make several of them.
So, this bright, light and impressive modern church has now been designated a Shrine. The official notification of this event said it would offer ‘pilgrims a form of devotion that is not common in the Australian context’. A shrine:
‘a place connected with a holy person or event where people go to worship‘
This is where it becomes confusing. In Old English a scrīn ( shrine) was a ‘cabinet, chest, shrine or reliquary, a repository in which a holy object or the relics of a saint are kept. Where we lived the Pays Basque, near the Camino, or Route de Compostela, you did not have far to walk to see a shrine, but this could just be a simple cross by the wayside; maybe not technically correct, but known locally as one.
The official communiqué of the installation also said that those ‘who attend the Mass are eligible to receive a partial indulgence….’ Now, here we are on precarious ground. In the Catholic tradition, there are two types of indulgences: partial indulgences and plenary indulgences. A partial indulgence removes part of one’s punishment or suffering, while a plenary indulgence removes all of one’s punishment or suffering. I will not attempt to explain further. Catholics will understand what it means.
This was open to abuse of course. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which I studied in the VI form, he recounts the story of the Pardoner who is a swindler, a smooth-talking cleric who offers pardons for sin in exchange for money (known as “indulgences” in the Middle Ages). He admits his hypocrisy, but his love of money and food override this duplicity. Pope Pius V abolished the sale of indulgences in 1567.
Back to the present. Why was Gosford chosen to install these relics and so become a Shrine? The answer is simple, although the preparation was immense. It was the work of the parish priest Fr. Greg Skulski, a Pole, as was Pope John Paul II. There is a strong Polish community in NSW and several Polish priests. The relics came via Ukraine, one week before the Russian invasion.
The forecast was for yet more rain and thunder, but the sun shone and the parish generously laid on a ‘sausage sizzle’ afterwards with sticks of assorted fruits to finish. Plus, not forgetting…….