Specimens of antiquity


By Louie Gombar
For the Umatuna Si Yu’os

Every Catholic has gone through this. We’ve been doing it since the fifth century or at least that is what recorded time tells us. It usually occurs at the end of Mass. You line up in the center aisle of the church and you work your way up to the priest or an altar boy who holds a “reliquary” for you to kiss in veneration.

Reliquary – now there’s an interesting word. It’s a vessel that houses some relic of the saints or apostles of which there are thousands collected by the church since the crucifixion of Christ. A modest church, St. Anthony’s chapel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has the greatest collection of relics outside of the Vatican: 5,000 items.

They run the gamut of fragmented mementos from preserved bodies to severed heads, from shavings of the true cross to thorns from the true crown (“euphorbia milli” which grows abundantly around Jerusalem), from dental parts to mummified skin and hair, from clothing worn by the venerated to body ornaments; even foreskins from circumcisions. It is a numberless collection of items directly connected to the saints and the apostles – or are they?

There is no possible way the Vatican can vouch for the authenticity of everything deemed to be a relic. Items of antiquity have the inclination to generate great value as time passes and they create the same kind of energy as say a rock concert in which some materialize into criminal economies and illicit trading to match the supply and demand.

And then there are the hazards involved.

I remember reading of the exhumation of one Filomena Almorenas from La Loma Cemetery in Manila whose remains were found to be perfectly preserved after 20 years of burial. Her coffin was partially filled with a purplish, rancid pool of water.

People began rubbing their bodies with the putrid water and even drinking it. Within minutes gatherers who swallowed the toxic liquid began convulsing. Seven died instantly at the gravesite, many others ended their lives at the hospitals that received their bodies.

Veneration is the act of honoring a person (or item associated with that person) who has been identified as having a high degree of sanctity or holiness, nothing more. Neither the church nor the Bible supports veneration as an attempt toward a magical end, towards the supernatural triumph over the grave. The Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, founded by Pope Sixtus V in 1588, works hard to prevent fraud and abuse of relics that are so widespread they can even be purchased on “eBay.” Relics have no power separate from God. Whatever comes from or after the veneration of a relic is God’s doing and is of purely divine origin.

Another fountain of confusion is the actual identification of the relic.

I asked a priest once about the relics in his church. He told me he had no idea. A little bit of transparency could mitigate this dilemma.

Inside a cave in a town close to Palermo, Sicily, lies a small shrine that contains the bones of Saint Rosalia.

She died of natural causes in that cave and her bones lay there for centuries until 1624 when a terrible plague struck Palermo. Her bones were gathered and paraded in the streets. Miraculously, the plague was averted, and up to this day, Sicilians venerate her bones with perpetual devotion.

There is one thing, though! Archaeologists, digging around the area of her cave, discovered that bones were those of a goat!

Louie Gombar is a retired middle school teacher.