Holy Foreskin! A Brief History of Stolen Catholic Relics
Last week a 900-year-old heart that allegedly belonged to St. Laurence O'Toole was stolen from a cathedral in Dublin. Although Rev. Dermot Dunne pointed out that the heart is “valueless” to others, the thief seems to have targeted the relic specifically, prying open the iron cage that held it while leaving more expensive items untouched.
While this might seem odd, the pilfering of Catholic relics has been going on for centuries.
© Fred de Noyelle/Godong/Corbis
The possession of a relic was a much bigger deal for a church in the Middle Ages than it is now for one big reason: money. Having a Vatican-sanctioned relic, be it the bones of a saint or a piece of the True Cross, meant that people were more likely to make pilgrimages to your church or monastery. Once at their destination, these traveling faithful would not only make large donations at the relic’s shrine, but contribute to the local economy as well.
So what did you do if you wanted to get a piece of the pilgrimage action but did not have access to a relic? Steal one.
In 866, the abbey of Conques was located along a popular pilgrim route, but it was of little interest to travelers since it housed no relics itself. Realizing they were missing out on a goldmine, the monks dispatched one of their own to the monastery at Agen, then home to the relics of St. Foy. The monk joined the monastery and spent the next ten years working his way up the ranks, until finally he was put in charge of the relics. He promptly ran off with them, making his decade-long undercover operation a complete success. With its ill-gotten relics, Conques became such a popular pilgrimage place that it became necessary to build a much larger church, a task that was easily paid for from the offerings of the faithful.
Despite breaking one of the Ten Commandments, the monks did not try to hide the story of how they had come into possession of the earthly remains of St. Foy. Admitting where they came from was a way of establishing the relics’ authenticity.
While the monks of Conques almost certainly put the most effort into obtaining their relics, other famous thefts include the pilfering of the bones of St. Mark from Egypt in 828, and the looting of the remains of St. Nicholas (Santa Claus himself!) from Turkey in 1087.
The Holy Foreskin
While a thousand years ago holy men would go to great lengths to acquire relics, one of the oddest heists did not occur until 1983.
Being Jewish, Christ would have been circumcised. That small ring of flesh would become a surprisingly important part of Christianity. The ceremony of circumcision, the brit milah or bris, was a favorite subject for painters and church walls often featured frescos of the act. The Emperor Charlemagne is supposed to have given Jesus’s foreskin to Pope Leo III as a reward for crowning him Holy Roman Emperor. Technically Charlemagne was re-gifting it, since legend says he received it as a wedding present from his wife.
Since relics were holy, and no one in the Christian religion was holier than Jesus, churches clamored to claim possession of the one true foreskin. At one point at least 18 towns promised pilgrims that their foreskin was the real deal. Over time most of these prepuces were lost or destroyed.
But the town of Calcata in Italy managed to hold on to theirs until just 30 years ago. On the Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord, January 1, the foreskin in its jeweled case would be paraded through the streets. But then in 1983, the case, and the “dense and fuzzy” piece of skin resembling a “red chickpea” that it contained, disappeared.
It is not just what was stolen that makes this particular theft so odd, though. The weirdest aspect of the story is that there is strong evidence it was stolen by the Vatican. And the cardinals did not steal it because they thought it was important; if they took it, it was so people would shut up about the thing.
Protestant leaders had been making fun of Catholicism’s claim to have that particularly intimate bit of Jesus since John Calvin in the 16th century. As far back as 1900 the Vatican had expressed concerns about the emphasis placed on the holy prepuce, suggesting that it encouraged “irreverent curiosity.” During the 1950s the Pope threatened the highest level of excommunication for anyone who even talked about the relic. Finally, during the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, the cardinals removed the Feast of the Circumcision from the church calendar.
Despite this, the yearly processions in Calcata continued, and the fact that this Italian town was wheeling it around on New Year’s Day like a parade float made sure that this foreskin remained front and center, so to speak. In the 1980s, when locals started writing about the relic for various Italian newspapers, the Vatican may have had enough. In 1983 it was announced that the relic had been stolen, and almost immediately the rumor started that the Vatican had taken it, perhaps in league with the local priest.
The Present Day
Stealing relics may be even more common today than in the medieval era. Besides the most recent burglary, at least half a dozen churches have reported relics stolen in the past two years. The thefts occurred everywhere from Los Angeles to Spokane to Dublin. In most cases, the relics were the only things taken despite the fact that their value these days is far more spiritual than monetary.
It was the Long Beach parishioners who found themselves in the most peculiar position last year, though. When a relic of St. Anthony went missing from their church, the congregation prayed to him for its return, a move that was all the more fitting since St. Anthony is the patron saint of “seekers of lost articles.”
Perhaps owing to these prayers, or just some good police work, the relic was recovered a few days later.