Faith, Fact, and Religious Relics

We welcome a guest post today from Bernadette McNary-Zak, coeditor of Resurrecting the Brother of Jesus: The James Ossuary Controversy and the Quest for Religious Relics, a collection of essays exploring the circumstances of an archaeological hoax in which a box of skeletal remains was passed off as belonging to James, the brother of Jesus. In this post, she discusses a few personal and public encounters with religious relics, including a reliquary recently discovered in Bulgaria that may be linked to John the Baptist.–ellen

On a hot afternoon several weeks ago, I joined approximately 200 other people at a local Catholic church in Memphis, Tennessee, to view several relics of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. The viewing was a fairly solemn event. Following the celebration of Mass, those gathered were invited to process to the front of the church in two rows where, before the altar, two reliquaries were being held (each by a priest): one contained a sample of Mother Teresa’s blood, the other a sample of her hair. The rosary was recited during the procession. Contact with the relics, in the form of a kiss on the reliquary, was strongly encouraged. As people returned to their pews, they walked past other relics belonging to Mother Teresa; her sandals and crucifix were on display behind glass. Hand-made posters highlighting significant moments, biographical information, and her work among the poor of Calcutta were visible to viewers as well. Photos were permitted, and members of her religious order distributed to each person two items that had come into contact with the relics: a postcard of her sandals and a medal.

The event provided an opportunity to think about the contexts in which objects are vetted as relics of religious significance. The relics of Mother Teresa have been, and remain, in the care of those in her immediate religious community. Their vetting occurred in the context of a church community, under the watchful eyes of ecclesiastical authorities, and in conjunction with an established and central liturgical practice. In this case, the context may have enhanced the religious significance of the relics.

Such a context does not necessarily guarantee the religious significance of a relic, however. This is clear from the recent papal declaration about the Shroud of Turin. On May 3, 2010, an article in the Christian Science Monitor reported that Pope Benedict XIV declared that the Shroud of Turin is, in fact, the burial cloth of Jesus of Nazareth. According to the article, the Pope “prayed in front of the cloth at St. John the Baptist Cathedral in Turin, Italy, saying afterwards in a ‘meditation’ that it was ‘an icon written in blood; the blood of a man who was whipped, crowned with thorns, crucified, and injured on his right side.’” The Pope’s declaration is in sharp contrast to the results of scientific investigation and radiocarbon dating. It is also in contrast to the claims of his predecessor, as the article reported that “Pope John Paul II visited the Shroud when it last went on display in 1998, but he said the Catholic Church had ‘no specific competence’ to pronounce on its authenticity and urged further scientific analysis.”

A secular context for the vetting of a relic can complicate the validation of its religious significance as well. Consider the context for the vetting of the James Ossuary, a context that could not be further removed from that of the relics of Mother Teresa or the Shroud of Turin. The James Ossuary was vetted at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Ontario in November, 2002. Its potential significance was recognized by many. The ossuary sparked immediate public interest, received strong media attention, and prompted scientific inquiry. Within months, it was pronounced a forgery. Despite this, within and across Christian denominational lines claims continue to surface about the authenticity and relevance of the ossuary and its inscription: “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”

Just last week, a article reported that archeologists in Bulgaria discovered a reliquary containing bone fragments that may belong to John the Baptist. As with the relics of Mother Teresa, the Shroud of Turin, and the James Ossuary, the religious significance of these newly recovered relics will be determined before the relics are vetted.

Bernadette McNary-Zak is associate professor of religious studies at Rhodes College.