Friday, June 17, 2011

Furta Sacra!

The LA Times reported yesterday that a stolen relic from St. Anthony's in Long Beach was found and returned to the church. The relic, a bone from St. Anthony, is over 750 years old and rests in an elaborate golden reliquary.

Relic theft has an illustrious history. In medieval Europe, relics--well, their reliquaries, really--were looted by Vikings in the 8-10th centuries. Catholic armies on the 4th Crusade sacked Constantinople (the capital of a Christian empire) and returned home with a bunch of good relic loot, including the head of John the Baptist. Medieval clerics also participated enthusiastically in furta sacra. St. Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln*, had a trick ring that could conceal small relics. While on a visit to the monastery at F├ęcamp, he bit off a piece of a finger bone of St. Mary Magdalene after requesting a private audience with the saint. Ste. Foy was removed (excuse me, "translated") to the monastery at Conques by an enterprising monk. Shrines were, and are, big business. Conques was an important stop on the pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela, and pilgrims to the shrine brought offerings, money, and trade to the monastery and its surroundings.

The Brother Cadfael episode "A Morbid Taste for Bones" deals with this issue nicely. It also has this guy in it.

What I like about the story of this more recent instance of relic theft is that St. Anthony is the patron saint of lost things. You just knew he wasn't going to stay lost for long. Also, instead of praying to the saint for a vision that would reveal his whereabouts, the police relied on surveillance footage from a nearby business. Of course, police have relied on St. Anthony's assistance for help with their own cases...

*St. Hugh is also the patron saint of the author's Oxford college.

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