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Mark C. N. Sullivan is an editor at a Massachusetts university. He is married and the father of three children.

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Irish Elk
Tuesday, June 29, 2004  
Saintly Relic Smackdown

The Holy Whapping has seen Ecclesia Anglicana's head of John the Baptist and raised him the head of St. Catherine of Siena (June 28 top).

Fr. Tucker is struck by the relation of the Holy Prepuce to the Rings of Saturn.

(And Matthew is right: the Daughters of Trent would make a very good name for a band. I'm thinking punk or surf, with plaid parochial-school jumpers, safety pins optional: the Belles of St. Trinians with electric guitars.)

The Museum of Hoaxes recalls the purported brain of St. Peter (which turned out to be a piece of pumice stone) in an article on the medieval relic trade.

The mummified body of Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier, minus a toe, is scheduled to be exhibited this December.

Till today, the remains of St. Francis Xavier seem miraculously well preserved, by this account. According to local lore, the body's hair and nails still keep on growing and have to be cut periodically. One toe is missing though, having been bitten off by an over-zealous devotee. Every ten years, the Exhibition of Francis Xavier is held, during which the body is laid out in the Sé Cathedral in Old Goa for all faithful to see. To avoid another toe-biting incident, it is kept in a coffin of glass. The saint's body attracts up to a million pilgrims, many from overseas and many non-Christian. For Goans living outside their state it is a matter of pride to return for the occasion. The next exhibition will take place in 2004, but there has been talk of the Vatican disapproving of the practice and considering a ban.

Elsewhere: A ceremony on Corfu is recalled that involves the parading of the mummy of St. Spiridion * Santa Caterina's head and thumb * Mummified Mother Cabrini * The stolen bones of St. Nicholas

Meantime, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, who may or may not be a Recovering Daughter of Trent, posts a list on Judging Dubiousness of Saints:

Subtract credibility points from any saint who:

-1 levitated
-2 flew
-3 performed significant actions after being dismembered
-4 performed significant actions after being beheaded
-2 is a Celtic saint associated with a body of water
-6 is a Celtic saint known only through being associated with a body of water
-1 is fun to draw
-1 has generated
ex ossibus relics in excess of a single normal human skeleton
-1 is a popular statuary figure in the front windows of botanicas
-2 has an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Saints which mentions the word “Antioch”
-2 is credited with the spontaneous generation of roses or rose petals
-2 after death or martyrdom, exuded water, milk, oil, perfume, or some other benign substance
-3 was granted specific favors at the point of martyrdom; viz., that women who invoke the saint during childbirth will bear healthy children, or that anyone who writes a Life of the saint will receive an unfading crown in heaven
-3 was the recipient of three or more miracles involving a significant discharge of energy
-4 performed numerically improbable feats (traveling in company with 11,000 virgins; simultaneously besting 50 philosophers in debate)
-5 had a run-in with a dragon
-5 is one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers (of whom there are nineteen)
-6 is first mentioned in martyrologies written several centuries after his or her supposed lifetime
-2 is mentioned in the Legenda Aurea
-7 is mentioned in the Legenda Aurea as a beautiful young virgin of noble birth who vows herself to Christ, is desired by a highly-placed official, and dauntlessly undergoes a long series of imaginative tortures interspersed with miracles before finally claiming the Palm of Martyrdom.
-8 appears to derive his or her entire existence from a medieval rhetorical trope
-9 appears to derive his or her entire existence from a misunderstood word or etymology
-10 appears to derive his or her entire existence from a typo
-15 is a member of the current lineup of the X-Men
— Subtract one additional point for each 10% of the saint’s life that can be mapped directly onto the folklore motif index.

It would improve the accuracy of this method to have a second weighted list of characteristics pointing toward believability: being mentioned in scripture or other early writings, being mentioned by contemporaries (esp. sober and authoritative contemporaries), being the author of thoroughly respectable early writings, having a detailed Life which is marked by great piety but contains no colorful anecdotes at all, etc. etc. etc.

Bear in mind that even the best of saints can have a few dubious characteristics. St. Teresa of Avila occasionally levitated during prayer. All sorts of odd legends have gotten attached to St. Nicholas of Myra and St. George. Poor old St. Oswald died by being hacked to pieces by Mercians at the battle of Maserfield, and between that and the confusion of the times that followed, he somehow acquired an extra head. Really, it could happen to anyone; and there is a preferred head, the one that was kept with the relics of St. Cuthbert. Oswald’s remains are positively staid compared to the five or six (or seven? I’ve lost count) heads that have been credited St. John the Baptist, every one of which is exceedingly dubious.

* * *

The Tyburn gibbet offered equal accessibility, after a fashion, but wouldn't be up to code today. Now, a Benedictine convent at the site where St. Edmund Campion and scores of other Reformation-era Catholic martyrs died must come up with £400,000 for handicapped lifts and ramps – or face closure. More: Thos Fitzpatrick * Bettnet * Patrick Sweeney * Inn at the End of the World


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