Carnie sideshow: the bizarre Catholic tradition that won’t die out

February 9, 2016 • 11:00 am

by Grania Spingies

Once upon a time there was a roaring trade in Christian relics: bits of bones and chopped up mummified body parts and scraps of clothing of purported saints did the rounds in Europe. Many were sold for enormous amounts of money, some became treasured property of local royal families, many became the focus of lucrative pilgrimages for religious centers that housed these relics. Almost all of the relics were endowed with dubious miraculous powers ranging from healing ailments to more spiritual rewards. Certainly, the financial rewards for hosting the body parts was substantial and demand for them was always at a premium. As Andrew Butterfield notes in his New Republic article What Remains:

Such was the desire for the miracle-working bodies of saints that occasionally guards had to watch over mortally ill holy men and women to prevent the unauthorized dismemberment of their corpses as soon as they died.

You’d probably think, well, that was fine for the Late Medieval era. That was then, but Christianity has moved on. People are far more educated these days. Even the most fundamentalist Christians are far removed from the grisly superstitions of the past. Right?

Well, no. The Church after much careful consideration and introspection has decided to straddle rank superstitious hocus pokery and modern rationality at the same time. In a masterful display of the seemingly impossible, they have decided to have their cake and eat it at the same time. As a result the exhumed corpse of Padre Pio (he of the verified-by-Church-Investigators-but-not-scientists stigmata fame) is leaving his home village of San Giovanni Rotondo going on a tour around Italy. He isn’t the first dead body on tour, and he probably (depressingly) won’t be the last.

Why are they doing this? Interestingly, the same reason as back in the Middle Ages. Tourism is down. The Irish Times reports:

Roman hoteliers … claim that, in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks in November, the sector has been hit by a wave of cancellations.
At the beginning of this month, ADA, the hotel managers association for Lazio, claimed that Christmas and New Year had seen a 10 per cent drop in tourist numbers.

On the other hand, the Vatican’s financial gain is San Giovanni Rotondo’s financial loss. The HuffPo reports:

But not all of the locals in this small town whose economy revolves around the pilgrim trade were happy that the saint was going on the road.

One feature that is widely reported as true, but isn’t in fact true at all is the exhumed body’s incorruptibility. The corpse when exhumed was reported partially skeletal, but he is nevertheless claimed as an incorruptibile all over the internet despite the contrary being well-known amongst the faithful, it’s even included on the Wikipedia page on Incorruptibility. Of course, his body is no such thing (mind you, neither are any of the other mummified corpses on that page – do take a look, especially if you are the type to not flinch while watching Tales From The Crypt or similar horror stories). HuffPo points out:

His body was partially reconstructed with a life-like silicone mask and preserved in a large, temperature-controlled glass reliquary so the faithful could view it.

If you ask a Catholic person whether they really believe that there is something to be gained (other than money, of course) in visiting, touching or owning the dead body of a famous holy person; they will probably frown and tell you that they are not required to venerate saints. It’s true, they are not. Perhaps a more important question would be why they think the Church endorses and promotes this so relentlessly when they know that it embarrasses the majority of their more educated and enlightened members.

There’s not a lot of sophisticated theology here. This is just a fairly mercenary bilking of the credulous, with a cynical mollifying aside to its members who have grown too sophisticated to be taken in by the carnival-style exhibits. Those amongst the faithful who are not attracted to the idea of exhuming and displaying dead bodies will just pretend that it isn’t happening. That’s kind of a miracle all by itself.




93 thoughts on “Carnie sideshow: the bizarre Catholic tradition that won’t die out

  1. The secular world also has its relics. The Italians have Volta’s skull and Galileo’s middle finger. London has Jeremy Bentham stuffed but no longer on view, and under the Pasteur Institute in Paris is Pasteur’s very ornate crypt.

    1. Bentham requested that he be preserved and put on display. Those other “relics” are saved for their historical value, not because anyone thinks they have magical powers.

    2. Wasn’t Napoleons (purported) penis put on sale a decade or so ago?
      And I’m frankly astonished that body parts from Princess Diana haven’t surface yet.

  2. I think the extent of religious practice in many people has to do with the love of participation in rituals and duties. They can celebrate many holidays in traditional ways that associate people within a family and join the family with the outer world. Relics worship probably gets a lot of its momentum from this mundane desire to be a participant, where the rational justification and cognitive dissonance are left completely unexamined.

    1. The original, and best, Black Adder series took a pop at this kind of thing too. “The sacred appendage party pack” was featured at one point.

      1. I immediately thought of that one too. IIRC Baldrick had a finger of Christ’s, whereupon everyone else produced their own fingers of Christ. Or something like that.


    2. That’s what I thought…of course, I had a vision of Derek Jacobi, in my mind, telling people, “WTF are you doing?!”

    1. I don’t think there’s any common origin, but …

      But … head hunters in both PNG and Amazonia.
      Ossuaries and/ or charnel houses like (picks example from thin air) West Kennet Long Barrow (Wessex Arch’s Avebury page has pictures and plans) are thought to have had bones stored and periodically brought out for “ritual purposes.”
      The habit probably goes back a long, long way. Possibly longer than our species.

        1. I’d have to go back and check, but I think the bone that the apes started clubbing the opposition with was an antelope bone. Where’s the book …

          When Moon-Watcher reached the far side, One-Ear was still standing his ground. Perhaps he was too brave or too stupid to run; perhaps he could not really believe that this outrage was actually happening. Coward or hero, it made no difference in the end, as the frozen snarl of death came crashing down upon his uncomprehending head.

          The “frozen snarl” being the leopard skull on a stick ; the apes (proto-humans, really, by now I guess) got the leopard skull after the leopard tried robbing them of the broken-legged antelope.
          The film doesn’t really cover that bit.
          But to continue the dead bones theme, there was discussion about “ritual use” of the Homo naledi fossil discovery of late last years. I don’t think it has been demonstrated, but it has been discussed.

            1. The book came out … I can’t remember when, but when I read the 2010 novel in the mid-1980s, I’d already read the 2001 novel I may even have read the novel before I saw the film.

            2. 2001: A Space Odyssey has its origin in Arthur Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel”, about finding an alien artifact on the moon. He and Kubrick decided to use it as the basis for the “…proverbial great science fiction movie…”. Clarke developed the novel and the screenplay in tandem, which is why there are so few differences between the story in the book and the film. The biggest difference is that in the book, the journey continues beyond Jupiter to Saturn and its moon Iapetus. That was supposed to be in the movie as well, but was cut for time and budget constraints = it would have added nearly another hour to the film.

              Special effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull later used the designs for 2001’s unused Saturn scenes in his directorial debut, Silent Running.

              I found that the best way to approach 2001 is to see the movie (for the visual impact), then read the book (for the subtexts that are not evident on film), then see the movie again to put it all together.

  3. The cynical core of the Catholic church is on full display here. Next will be a kitschy catalog of religuary. A Disneyland with displays of animatronic robo-saints. Maybe an Etsy web site set up to sell locks of the Popes’ hair.

  4. As an undergraduate I found a weathered splinter of wood and taped it to a piece a paper on my door that proclaimed the wood as a piece of the One True Cross(TM).

    Unfortunately, I made no money from my relic. I then went onto Ponzi schemes, lotteries, and other forms of thievery to get rich.

      1. Put them all together and it’ll become obvious that the One True Cross must have been the size of a California Redwood. Hence the miracle of how Jesus was able to shoulder it all the way to his crucifixion.

    1. You have a vocation, my son. It would be but a sin to let such a calling go to waste. Go ye, and be on about Your Father’s business.

  5. When asked why did you risk all to go off and fight in war, the answer often comes back – g*d & country. After discovering that country was operating under false pretense, evidence for the remaining reason is hard to find.

  6. I recently read and highly recommend “Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe.” The Catholic Church was built on relic tourism. The great cathedrals of Europe were created as Disney Lands/Mayo Clinics for saints’ remains.

    1. Similarly the book “The Myth of Persecution” suggests that a lot of this myth (Xians thrown to the lions etc) also came about due to tourism, because everyone wanted a good local martyrdom story to sell to the punters.

      1. I remember being told in (Catholic) grade school that it was too bad there there were so few opportunities to become martyrs any more since that was a guaranteed express ticket to heaven. I don’t remember finding the thought of martyrdom very comforting, and was rather glad it was uncommon.

  7. As I was thinking about why many people are so resistant to criticisms of how silly this sort of thing is, I realized that some statements only serve to make people recategorize you, moving you from a source of information to “skeptic”, much like some email is automatically sent to the spam folder without providing the opportunity to evaluate the content.

    The first step to influencing people, it would seem, is to first avoid being identified as spam.

    1. I disagree, I think you can laugh some people out of supporting (even tactily) this sort of thing.

      I’m not advocating beating old grannies who pray to Padre Pio every day over the head with it. But younger modern Catholics can certainly take the occasional point of inquiry.

    2. …and yet if you walk around cemeteries in the UK you will often see childrens’ graves decked out in tiny football shirts or club regalia, teddy bears, saccharine poems or even solar cell nightlights.

      I can’t find it in myself to criticise grieving parents, or even those keen to see bits of martyrs, but I do wonder if this gaudification is more pagan than Christian.

  8. As a classical music recording engineer, I spend a lot of time in churches — and when I find myself in a monastery or a cathedral I always look around for bones (forensic anthropology is my hobby). I’m seldom disappointed! The aura of sanctity emanating from these holy relics doesn’t seem to have had much of an effect on me, however.

    1. I’m hearing a Gregorian chant soundtrack backing an Indiana Jones-style narrative.

      This has screenplay stamped all over it.

  9. I can recommend a recent novel, dealing with this topic: Christopher Buckley’s “The Relic Master”. It’s a rollicking good story, too, starting out with the discovery, in Pope Leo X’s tomb (died 1521), of a second Shroud of Turin and how it came to be there.

    1. The first of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael novels, A Morbid Taste For Bones, was about a monastery’s quest to acquire a set of respectable relics so their abbey could attract more pilgrims and make more money. Britain’s ITV made it as episode seven of their Brother Cadfael TV series with Derek Jacobi as the lead.

    2. I’m flashing back to Dave Allen’s long-running series of sketches on “A day in the life of a Stunt Pope.”
      “Always mount a scratch monkey.”

  10. Communists and socialists mummify the corpses of their leaders too. Lenin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il, Stalin until 1961. Some religious people argue that communism is atheist, yet the religious impulse is still there. The Great Leader is never going to leave you.

    1. Back in 2001, I went through the Mao-soleum in Bejing, a truly surreal experience. A few years later, we were in Moscow and I was hoping to continue my World Tour of Embalmed Dictators, but it turns out that Lenin is taken out for repairs in April.

      (I’ve had people tell me they refuse to visit Lenin or Mao, since that legitimizes them or somehow justifies their actions. I realize that most (all?) of these Embalmed Dictators were truly evil people, but I can’t resist these glorified roadside attractions. And I was really amused by the way they’d sell flowers outside Mao’s tomb, visitors would place them on carts in front of the body (or a wax imitation thereof), and they’d wheel the carts back out and resell the same flowers.)

      1. Back in 2001, I went through the Mao-soleum in Bejing, a truly surreal experience.

        Google define:mausoleum ; the original one was one of the Seven wonders of the world.

    2. And so do utilitarians – read up on what happened to J. Bentham!

      As for communism and atheism, well, there are atheistic religions already. (Some buddhisms.)

      However, I still like to say that North Korea is a confucian stalinist theocracy, where the multiwaay oxymoron is on purpose.

  11. This is really rather pathetic. Not even H. L. Mencken could come up with a more over the top satirical caricature of Catholicism than this actual behavior. It is difficult to take seriously people that take this shit seriously, or give them anything more than the basic respect due any other living organism.

    In a similar vein, a friend and I once stopped for lunch at a small, old diner type of joint in a small Florida town. The place was run down and had a somewhat creepy feel to it. It was crowded but unnaturally quiet. Almost all of the people were elderly. There was only one table available, right in the middle of the crowd. It seemed like everyone watched us walk in and sit down, all with either grim or dead visages.

    I was spooked. As I was looking over the menu I surreptitiously studied the nearly silent crowd we were surrounded by. I felt like I was in an old Twilight Zone episode. I noticed that one woman had a dark smudge on her forehead. Then I noticed a man that also had a dark smudge on his forehead. This seemed very strange and creepy to me and I quickly began searching for dark smudges. Virtually every single person had a dark smudge right in the middle of their foreheads!

    I was really creeped out at this point. I leaned forward and carefully whispered to my friend, “All these people have smudges right in the middle of their foreheads, WTF?” He took a look around and then? Started laughing. Out loud. He then explained to me about Ash Wednesday.

    I’d long known that there was a Christian “holiday” called Ash Wednesday, but I’d never known what the special ceremony entailed. It was very surprising to me that so many people could take this silly shit seriously enough in this day and age to go to church and get smudged. And they all looked grim and miserable! I thought religion was supposed to make you feel good?

    1. That’s a pretty hilarious story!

      I partook in this ritual for the first 20 years of my life or so, often showing up to school where all the Catholic kids could be distinguished by the dirt on their heads. Naturally, there’s a little ritualistic phrase that goes along with the ceremony, “From dust you came and to dust you shall return.” Lovely sentiments, but what more could you expect from a tradition that has a statue of a dead guy hanging on a cross front and center at every Mass (and that’s not counting the 14 other statues of his walk to Calvary that adorn most Churches)?

      1. Tomorrow’s the day! Everyone here in Ecuador will be walking around with ashy foreheads. At least here in Latin America there are no frowns or serious looks n that day… the bags under the eyes are not from solemn religious study but from dancing half-naked for the previous five to seven days in Carnival!

      2. So, was it typically a gentle, friendly touch (that sounds really bad when the context is Catholicism!) or more like a rough, rude thump?

      3. The incantation I remember is “Remember Man that you are (or thou art) dust and unto dust you shall (or thou shalt) return”. I never found much comfort in that pronouncement, and even as a kid thought that it was a pretty rotten thing to do to someone my age. This was in the Vatican II era, and this particular parish was ultra-conservative.

        1. It’s quite possible they said “thou” instead of “you.” I was raised in the American south where there was an odd mix of the formal with the informal. The Our Father certainly still used the older style language. I’m not sure about how conservative the various parishes I attended were as a whole, but the groups my parents ran with in the parishes were extremely conservative (Natural Family Planning, speaking in tongues, praying novenas, etc.) Once, we even boycotted McDonald’s for 2 years because rumor had it that it had supported a charity that wasn’t sufficiently pro-life.

          More related to a topic, my father was always enthralled by the stories of Padre Pio and his alleged levitation and bilocation abilities. I largely accepted the stories without much questioning, as good little Catholics do, but when these claims bumped up against the real world, even as I child, I recall having glimmers of doubt that this whole charade is steeped in nonsense.

          1. The factual claim that we have a soul is the universally accepted teaching of the Church. However, try to track down two theologians who agree on what it is and have the support of the Church in their precise definition and you’re playing a fool’s game. Unless I’m mistaken there simply is no coherent definition to be found for soul that is officially promoted by the Church. It teaches that we rise body and soul into heaven at the end of time, but even this clarifies nothing. If we get our bodies back, what the hell is this soul thing they keep tacking on? Are souls dependent of the form of the matter making them, as Aristotle taught or is the soul its own entity somehow interacting with our bodily matter. No one knows and the Church frankly doesn’t care which one you believe.

      4. Naturally, there’s a little ritualistic phrase that goes along with the ceremony, “From dust you came and to dust you shall return.”

        Obligatory Sagan-esque updating (because even secular skeptics struggle to resist having saints) : We are stardust
        We are golden

    2. They were looking grim because, by the “absence of THE MARK”, they knew that you were NOT one of “them”……

  12. I remember as a Catholic school child being given a card with a tiny piece of cloth that was supposed to have been from a robe worn by some saint or other. It was supposed to keep the person who had it from harm. When I got beat up on the way home from school that same day, I threw it out.

  13. I was in a discussion with some people over at the Catholic Answers website once and they dragged out the Incorruptibles as evidence of God. It’s truly bizarre. If the soul has left the body after death, what’s the point of “preserving” a body that has no functioning organs? Furthermore, all these supposedly incorruptible saints have been chemically treated in one way or another so there’s nothing natural about it.

    As for Padre Pio, the fact that he was alive within the last couple of generations of humanity makes Catholic claims that they rise above superstition and hocus pocus downright ludicrous. His story is straight out of the Dark Ages, resting comfortably in the category of flying saints and levitating Eucharists. This site has several interesting stories about the man, including his apparent ability to prevent a plane from bombing a town during WWII. If he had this ability, why not just spare all the people everywhere for the whole war and disable all the weapons? God, and his bilocating charlatans do indeed work in mysterious ways.

        1. Alternatively, you could always turn platinum into gold. However, platinum is more valuable than gold, so it’s better to keep the platinum.

    1. Mohammedanists does this too, asking why churches are standing after earthquakes. Assuming they are, controlling for selection bias, those are often different structures than most houses and have sustained a lot of effort in construction.

      If their Magic Man™ cared for people, why did the earthquake happen in the first place, and why did the other houses come down? I guess that means Magic Man™ is Mysterious Man.

      1. Decades ago, in our university library, I found a series of illustrated reports by ??The American Iron & Steel Institute?? on notable earthquakes, each based on an inspection soon after the event. Quite fascinating.

        And there was one earthquake (possibly Skopje – how can I remember these odd details? – my brain is weird!) – where major damage occurred but a number of minarets stayed standing.

        (The reason being that the natural frequency of the minarets was so low that they swayed but didn’t fracture).


      2. Mohammedanists does this too, asking why churches are standing after earthquakes.

        See the write up on the 1755 “Lisbon” earthquake.
        Weren’t there there some rumblings of puzzlement a few years back about some (Islamic) religious centre in Iran getting hit by a quake?

    1. On the ‘grab’ I seem to recall a tale of a bishop in medieval times, leaving his companion with horses at the ready outside, entering a church to visit the body of St Someone. Bending to kiss the forehead he bit off the nose, out the door and onto horse and home. Relic installed and income increased.

  14. Padre Pio is one of the very least likable characters of modern Catholicism, just trailing Pope Benedict.

    He did nothing noteworthy to non-Catholics and seemed actually to be a bit crazy, as in Michele Bachman/Sarah Palin crazy.

    I kinda/sorta get the adulation of Mother Teresa (though I withhold assent), but am just baffled at the popularity of this bizarre man.

    1. I think it is genuinely because they believe he had the wounds of the crucified Jesus i.e. literally magic.

      Otherwise, all you have is a man who appeared to be deeply depressed and filled with self-loathing who had to self-harm to perpetuate a useful lie for his Church.

      1. The summary of his early life is particularly interesting…he “dedicated his life to God by the age of 5.” Really? My youngest son is turning 5 in a couple of months. Joking aside about ill defined God concepts, my son probably can’t even tell you what the Church says God is, much less dedicate his life to the cause. If he’d dedicate himself to eating a meal in one sitting that’d be progress.

        Anyhow, my point is Padre Pio’s parents had to have been doing some serious brainwashing to the kids. Cases like this fit the bill perfectly for Richard Dawkins’ notion that religious indoctrination is abuse. And this doesn’t even begin consider where a young child would get the idea that he should be using stones as a bed and doing penance. Surely, just touched by the Hand of God, nothing to do with parental influence, right???

  15. Not just the Catholics – the Russian Orthodox Church too. When I was in Moscow in 2006 the longest queue I have seen in my entire life was outside a church in the middle of the day, consisting of people waiting to see the severed hand of some saint or other.

  16. I have a friend in Naples, Italy, a native Napolitan who has never lived anywhere else, and who is a veterinary doctor and works at the University of Naples. Politically she is a hard-core socialist and atheist. One day the topic of San Gennaro ( time each year in a church in Naples the blood of Christ becomes liquid) came up. I wondered what kind of chemical trick they used every year to perform this liquefaction of blood (if ever this happened). To my surprise my vet friend said, no, this is real, it really happens, it is a miracle! In no way would she accept that this had to be a hoax, performed for centuries. Well, Christianity in Naples is of a very ancient form, predating Christianity as we know it, and still the basis of how Neapolitans think. Just come to Naples during Christmas, in fact their Christmas displays are more exciting than the lonely stables with a cow and a donkey.

  17. If memory serves from my parochial-school education, relics come in three degrees: the first is a piece of a saint’s bodily remains (blood, bone, hair, etc.); the second, a piece of a saint’s clothing or other intimate possession; the third, something a saint had touched.

    I haven’t given a thought to any of this in nearly half a century — and, truth to tell, never gave it much thought even then (other than, self-evidently, to lodge it in long-term memory).

    My Catholic-school days coincided roughly with Vatican II, and this kind of hoodoo/voodoo stuff was taken with a grain of salt, relegated to the backseat in favor of John XXIII’s efforts to open up the Church for the laity — except for by a hardcore of superannuated nuns and priests and parishioners who saw themselves as the Keepers of the Faith, entrusted with Preserving the Old Ways, such as the Latin mass.

      1. Agreed. Part of the problem stems from the recrudescence of reactionary Catholic forces following the death of J-23 — beginning with his immediate successor, Paul VI, but growing worse with JP II, and then Benedict.

        The main problem, of course, has to do with the nature of superstition itself.

      1. My school board is advertising/promoting a showing of a replica of the shroud of Turin.

        When this was announced at a meeting, I accidentally blurted out: “Really? A forgery of a forgery!!”

        Suppressed chuckles all around me.

  18. Back when I was a sophomore in Southern Connecticut State (a public university by all means), I attended this event where some guy was showing off “authentic” gloves that covered the stigmatized hands of Padre Pio. That was back then when I was a weaning Catholic. When I did touch them, maybe at the moment I did feel something special about them…later on I was disappointed I didn’t gain any psychometric powers.

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