Postcard from Guanajuato, Mexico: Templo de la Compania de Jesus

The florid details of the Churrigueresque façade of the church of La Compania de Jesus in Guanajuato are striking. The church was constructed between the years of 1747 and 1765.

But, as always, the details inside the church are equally as interesting. A rectangle of red velvet hung on the wall next to an image of Saint Lucy to encourage petitioners appealing for better eyesight to pin their silver milagros of eyes there. But, regarding proximity as more potent, several fortified their prayers by taping their charms directly on her image.

One day El Nino Medico almost was submerged completely in a sea of boys’ toys, but he was liberated from them the next week. Only a few photos, milagros and a lone baby shoe remained by his feet. A new crop of toys probably has arrived in his case by now.

Holding El Nino securely in one arm, the Virgin Mary somehow uses her other to hoist up some lad. She rescues him from the fierce-looking jaws of a black, toadlike version of the devil, surely by some artist from another time period than whoever sculpted the original statues in the ornate Baroque niche.

A few-peso fee grants admittance to the sacristy containing a small collection of paintings. But the appeal for me was not just the art. The docent pulled aside a heavy floor-to-ceiling drape to reveal the true treasures – first-class reliquaries containing major bones of several saints.

 

Ah, and the bloody feet pictured on the poster for a pilgrimage taking place tomorrow. Those feet represent those of Jose Sanchez del Rio, who will be canonized a saint in Rome tomorrow. Born in Sahuayo, Michoacán, in 1913, the teen left home to serve as the flag bearer for the Cristeros, who were rebelling against the enforcement of rigid anticlerical laws in 1926 by President Plutarco Elias Calles. Foreign Catholic priests were expelled from Mexico, and monasteries, convents and Catholic schools were closed.

Violence escalated, and the armed Cristeros, primarily rural peasants with no military training, even managed to inflict several defeats on federal forces. When Blessed Jose was captured, he refused to recant his faith. He was imprisoned in the seized parish church, and his jailers attempted to extract a ransom from his family for his release.

In addition to captured Cristeros, a government official was using the church to house his prized fighting cocks. According to the website of Ive Minor Seminary:

When Jose arrived he saw the roosters running around the church and was indignant, and said, “This is not a barnyard!” He took them all by the neck and killed them, hanging them from a banister. According to some, Picasso (the name of the government official) had imported some of those very fine birds all the way from Canada, and this was the last straw; he was so indignant that he commanded that they execute the boy by firing squad.

The soldiers carried out their own gruesome ritual prior to the execution. As he was marched to the firing squad:

…they began to strike him with the machetes they carried. Even worse, they chopped off the soles of Jose’s feet, and they forced him to walk along the rocky unpaved road to the cemetery. Instead of complaining, he shouted, “Long live Christ the King!” Witnesses said that the stones where Jose had trodden were all soaked in his blood, and although he moaned from the pain, he never weakened in his resolve.

Blessed Jose obtained his martyrdom on February 10, 1928.

The roster of Mexican saints now numbers about three dozen. No doubt, a few of the faithful will make the pilgrimage tomorrow barefoot in honor of the canonization of the new saint.

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 Ferrara, Italy: Cathedral honors the dragon-slayer

Saint George is the patron saint of Ferrara, so, first, here’s a wandering tale about the saint.

Collecting water for the day was a major chore, but a fierce dragon guarding your water supply really complicates matters. The wise villagers in a kingdom somewhere, perhaps Lebanon or Libya, placated the beast by releasing two sheep to it before fetching pails of water. But the dragon consumed sheep faster than the villagers could raise them, so soon their supply was exhausted.

Some “wise” person, obviously a male, determined the best way to appease the dragon was to feed him young women. A lottery was held to see which young woman would become his supper first, and the beautiful daughter of the king drew the short straw.

The villagers took her to meet her fate, tying her near the dragon’s lair. Fortunately, just in the nick of time, along came a brave Roman soldier who heard the princess cry out for help. The brave soldier slew the dangerous beast and freed the princess.

This tale was one picked up during the Crusades and embellished by soldiers returning home. The hero was reputed to be Saint George, a patron saint of soldiers, a saint who helped protect them not only during warfare but also from diseases they might pick up along the way, such as the plague or syphilis.

The legend of Saint George and the dragon has persisted through thousands of years, mainly because it is such a fairy-tale-type story. Although to truly fit into the Disney-type mold by which many of us were shaped, shouldn’t George then have married the beautiful princess and lived happily ever after?

There are lots of hard-to-believe stories of saints, but this one is considered more legend than fact. As one early pope purportedly said, George was included in the group of saints “whose names are justly revered among men, but whose actions are known only to God.”

But George did earn his sainthood. He became a valued officer serving in the guard of Emperor Diocletian. The emperor, however, demanded all his soldiers renounce Christianity. George steadfastly resisted. The emperor sentenced him to death via several brutal methods we will not describe, but, somehow, George was revived three times. Finally, he was beheaded in April of the year 303.

The grand Duomo is dedicated to Saint George. The façade was begun in the 12th century but took another century or so to complete. Some of its treasures have been moved to the Museo della Cattedrale nearby.

The cathedral with its spacious plazas in front and on one side is an integral part of daily interactions among citizens in Ferrara constantly crisscrossing them. At some point long ago, a shopping arcade of inferior architecture was attached to one side. Fortunately, the arcade is only one story high, so much of the cathedral’s details are preserved for viewing, including the wonderfully funky pairs of wave-like columns running along the side.

These photos are of the Cathedral and some of the contents of its museum.