Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews   entry July 2019

Sacred Relics
—It's not a big thing. Really.

  The Circumcision of Christ by Friedrich Herlin
Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany, 1466.

Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536), the great Christian humanist (and, lest we forget, a solid Roman Catholic), noted our obsession with sacred relics and said that entire houses could be built from wood said to be from the True Cross, the one used to crucify Christ. Much later, another skeptic (to put it mildly), Mark Twain, said that the Savior had 12 disciples and 13 of them were buried in Germany.

Thus we come to the topic of religious relics, the need to have something physical and external to support what is spiritual and internal --a rack to hang your faith on. Nor is that need only a Christian one. Most religions put at least some value on physical objects to remind believers what they believe in (or perhaps just to provide a sense of identity to the secular — a sense of where they "come from"). The objects may be mundane and not otherwise noteworthy, such as the Prophet Muhammad's sandals, or the hair and ashes of Buddha or Krishna's footprints; or they may be entire historical sites, such as the Western Wall in Jerusalem, which gives even secular Jews a sense of faith and identity.

Christianity is conspicuous, however, by the great number of such relics. Beyond wood from the True Cross and thorns from the Crown, we find the Shroud of Turin, held to be the burial shroud of Jesus. There are lesser-known items such as the chains that bound St. Paul before his martyrdom. (They are seen encased in one of the four major papal churches in Rome. Relics range in "severity" from, say, chains (severe, indeed) to... uh...delicate and tiny (even cute! I mean no disrespect. I just find this one, if it exists, kind of unrelicky.) I speak of the Holy Prepuce (pronounced /pree'-puss/), or Holy Foreskin (Latin: præputium or prepucium), from the circumcision of Jesus. Many churches in Europe have claimed to posses the Holy Foreskin.

Foreskin relics began appearing in Europe during the Middle Ages. The earliest instance came on Christmas Day, 800, when Charlemagne gave that relic to Pope Leo III. Charlemagne said he got it from an angel while he prayed at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem; more likely, it was a wedding gift from the Byzantine Empress Irene. Its authenticity was later supported by Saint Bridget of Sweden, who had a vision that the Prepuce was in Rome. The Descriptio laternansis Ecclesia, written shortly before 1100, says that a cypress chest commissioned by Leo III and placed under the altar in the Chapel of St. Lawrence held three caskets. One contained a gold jeweled cross — further, that hidden inside the cross were the foreskin and umbilicus of Jesus.

Where is it now? Of the more than dozen places in Europe that have claimed to have the Holy Prepuce, the one most familiar to Italians is Calcata, a town in the Province of Viterbo in the region of Latium (Lazio). Calcata is 47 km (29 mi) north of Rome. In the last 50 years, the old center of Calcata has acquired a reputation as a center for artists and "Bohemians." In one of those travel articles that the NYT hopes is "fit to print", it said Calcata was the "grooviest village in Italy." I don't know if decrepit hippies even know how to spell groovey or if have much to do with the Sacred Foreskin, but you kind of feel they should.

Legends of Calcata say that in 1527 a soldier in the German army sacking Rome looted the Sanctum sanctorum (the Holy of Holies, a repository for sacred and cherished items). When he was captured, he hid the jeweled reliquary containing the Holy Prepuce in his cell, where it was discovered in 1557. From that date on, it was officially venerated in Calcata by the Catholic Church, and Calcata became a popular site for pilgrimage. Times change. The Vatican warned the many claimants to stop bickering over the relic. In 1962 the Second Vatican Council took the Day of the Holy Circumcision off the church calendar of holy days and obligations, but Calcata kept on with an annual procession on the Day of the Holy Circumcision. That stopped in 1983 when the relic vanished. Stolen? Maybe. Or was it removed by church authorities to finally put an end to what had become a rather embarrassing bit of "prepuceolatry"? Perhaps that is more likely. Similar things have happened elsewhere. At the Fontanelle cave cemetery in Naples, for example, the cult of devotion to the skulls lying in piles on the premises lasted until 1969, when Cardinal Ursi of Naples decided that such devotion had degenerated into paganism. He closed the cemetery.

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