—It's not a big thing. Really.
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.
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
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.