Postcard from Bologna, Italy: Drawn to those bones

The bones above purportedly belong to the bodies of Saint Vitalis (Vitale) and Saint Agricola. The pair’s history is a bit hazy, as the two were martyred in Bologna under the orders of the Roman Emperor Diocletian (244-316) somewhere in the neighborhood of the year 304. As Diocletian claimed to be the son of Jupiter himself, he was not particularly tolerant of people worshipping a supreme being other than his own father.

Catholic Online relays one version of the end of the lives of the saints above:

Vitalis was the slave of Agricola and a dedicated Christian. Arrested and condemned for his faith, Vitalis faced his death with such aplomb that Agricola was converted and accepted his own crucifixion.

The Cathedral in Bologna houses a collection of what are termed “First-Class” relics, including those above. First Class refers to relics that actually were part of the saints’ bodies, versus, say, scraps of their garments.

My fascination with relics stems from the difference of practice of Catholics growing up in Virginia Beach where we had none of which I am aware, and the practice of Catholics in Europe and Mexico where many reliquaries are displayed prominently in churches. The stories about the church and saints I find of interest are the ones nuns never ever mentioned during catechism.

Of course, the United States is not home of many canonized saints, whereas Italy has hundreds. Perhaps the practice of spreading the bones around to different churches arose naturally from the fact that the various extreme methods of exterminating the lives of early Christian martyrs did not always leave their bodies intact.

Rather than try to lamely explain why churches house reliquaries, I thought I’d see how Catholic websites define the practice:

More commonly, the saint’s bones were divided up, so various communities could have a portion of his relics: the skull here, a hand there, other bones elsewhere.

“Relics,” Catholic Answers To Explain and Defend the Faith

The article continues that Saint Jerome explained how the faithful “venerate the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore him whose martyrs they are.” Relics also “may be the occasion of God’s miracles.”

T.L. Frazier clarifies church policies about relics:

Harkening back to the eighth-century iconoclastic controversy and the seventh ecumenical council at Nicaea (787), the Council of Trent maintained against the Reformers that the honor given to a relic, statue, or icon was honor not to an object (fetishism and idolatry), but to the person it represented. Latria (Greek: worship) must be given to God alone, whereas dulia (Greek: veneration or respect) may be given to holy people or articles.

“No Bones about Dem Bones,” T.L. Frazier

Saint Thomas More lost his head over conflicts with Henry VIII who broke with Catholicism to accommodate his habit of engaging in serial marriages. Pope John Paul II proclaimed Thomas More the patron saint of statesmen and politicians. During this contentious election year in the United States, we sure could use some miraculous relief from ugly rhetoric.

Relics of Saint Thomas More were on a whirlwind tour in the United States, ending up in Washington, D.C., on July 5. Hopefully, they left a residue of miraculous powers to evoke statesmanship-like behavior behind in their wake.

If you know anybody who lives in Centennial, Colorado, maybe ask them to visit St. Thomas More Catholic Church to ask for assistance from its reliquary of the saint. But wait, this one American church possesses more than 60 First-Class relics available for veneration, so all my thoughts about saints’ bones in churches in this country must be wrong.

So now I’m curious. Surely a church as ancient as San Fernando Cathedral and the seat of the Archdiocese must have some reliquaries of their own…. Might have to go on a reconnaissance mission in my own backyard.

Postcard from Ravenna, Italy: A pair of baptisteries

Ravenna has a pair of octagonal brick baptisteries dating from the first 500 years or so of Christianity. The oldest of the two, the Neonian Orthodox Baptistery, is named for Bishop Neon who had the existing structure crowned with a masonry dome. The second baptistery was built by Theodoric the Great, the King of the Ostrogoths, because…?

Maybe Theodoric wanted one closer to his palace; although Ravenna certainly is walkable. Plus, Theodoric was an Arian Christian, as opposed to Orthodox or Roman Catholic. To those mainstream Catholics, Arian Christians were heretics. Not a theologian, I have little understanding of the distinctions. Obviously, the differences are major or there would not have been two baptisteries, and the Ostrogoths and those they battled probably would have gotten along better.

The followers of these religions all believed in Jesus, but differed concerning the balance of power. Arians made Jesus subservient to God, His Father, and there was no Trinity. Arians, therefore, were not haunted by the Holy Ghost as part of the religious triumvirate. That made things much simpler to explain to potential converts because the Holy Spirit is conceptually difficult to grasp, particularly since the image is not personified.

Theodoric’s mosaic artists probably were not Arian because the Holy Ghost, represented as a dove, is hovering above spurting water over the scene above to assist the John the Baptist, modestly clad in a leopard-skin cloak. This was fortunate because, when the Arians were kicked back out of Ravenna only a couple of decades later, the mosaics were not destroyed as heretical.

The duplication of baptisteries is particularly interesting because, according to an article by Annabel Jane Wharton, the ceremonial structures were rarely used:

In the early Church, the principal baptismal liturgy took place once a year, on Easter Sunday eve: the of the Resurrection was deemed the most appropriate moment in which to die and be reborn in Christ…. Enrollment of those to be baptized took place at the beginning of Lent…. In the weeks of Lent efforts were made to prepare initiates for their admittance into the full fellowship of the Church through an arduous routine of fasting, catechism, and daily exorcism.

Wharton wrote participants entered the baptisteries and faced west first to renounce the Devil, then east to embrace Christ. Garments probably were removed before the baptism, leaving the new believers as exposed as Jesus above, with his navel the geographical center of the artistic composition and the dome. Then the baptized donned white garments as a sign of their new-found purity.

Because I feel fairly confident few religious scholars would read very far into my posts, I have taken the liberty of jumbling the photographs from the two baptisteries together into one collage. When returning from trips and sorting through images, I sometimes feel as though someone took the whole proverbial slide tray, dumped them out and shuffled them to confuse me. I do believe all of these photos belong to one baptistery or the other.

While years of Saturday catechism classes at Star of the Sea left me with a rather hazy understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit, I am sure happy the nuns opted for a rap on the knuckles instead of requiring daily exorcism during Lent.

Postcard from Coimbra, Portugal: Churches and Cloisters

The nuns did it. All those Saturdays of catechism in addition to Sunday services at Star of the Sea.

Plus trips to confession. Having to enter the curtained cell, knowing stern Father Habit was there on the other side of the screen, habitually demanding you come up with a list of sins, even at age seven. Forcing you to make up stories about bad things you didn’t do in order to convince him to finally dismiss you with the standard penance to utter “three Hail Marys and two Our Fathers and all your sins will be forgiven.” A pretty nice out if you’re feeling guilty about something.

Anyway. Count me in as one of the lapsed, generally entering churches only for weddings and funerals, which fortunately do not summon me frequently. Kind of like the angel falling off the rooftop in one of these photos.

But, while traveling, I make amends. Crash Catholicism make-up periods. A pilgrimage. Rarely less than a church a day. If crossing the threshold and peering into every nook and cranny open to the public counts, I turn into a faithful church-goer.

Frankly, I’m smitten by ancient churches – the history, beauty, power and mystical symbolism they hold. So many stories. The demonstrations of people’s belief in miracles. Soaring walls whispering mysterious secrets.

Most of the time taking photos is inappropriate, but here are a few photos from this voyeuristic approach to Catholicism taken in Coimbra….

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