Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Church decorating with body parts...

This week, according to an article in the Tampa Tribune, several parts of a dead Italian priest will be making the trip to St. Petersburg, Florida.

John Bosco's dismembered right arm and hand were separated from the rest of his remains when his urn was exhumed in 1929.

"Normally," said the Rev Len Plazewski (Catholic Diocese of St Petersburg), "one goes to where the saint is buried."

"[But] instead of us going on a pilgrimage," added Rev Michael Conway, "Don Bosco is coming to us."

To properly frame what I'm thinking this morning, I have to share the following (brief) story from our trip to Tuscany in 2009.

Last summer, when Rebekah and I travelled to Italy, we spent a marvelous day in the city of Siena, including a tour of the Basilica of San Domenico.

Meandering through the great nave, I stopped to look, incredulously, at a roped off, well-lit exhibit. It was a severed human head - its features mostly preserved - along with a thumb!

I pulled out my camera, zoomed in, and had the grotesquely misaligned details of the tragic woman's face focused to a high definition. But I could not bring myself to snap the picture.

Rebekah and I talked about it. We were perplexed because, in our church, adornments are more along the line of stained glass, banners, candles, posters - that sort of thing. We did some research (You can see us, below right, listening to the "self-guided tour", not believing what we're hearing, inside San Domenico).

The head (and thumb), it turns out, belong to/with "Catherine of Siena", a 14th Century Dominican who essentially starved herself to death because she "found no nourishment in earthly food". She was buried in Rome, but religious leaders in Siena wanted her body after miracles were reported in the vicinity of her grave.

A raiding party was sent to Rome, where the thieves removed Catherine's head and a thumb and stuffed them in a bag before heading home. Religious authorities in Siena had the body parts crudely preserved and placed them on display at San Domenico....

I can just imagine the conversation in the "Church decorating committee" meeting.
  • Father Toni: "Who has any ideas for making the sanctuary more appealing?"
  • Mrs. DeLucca: "The fall colors are lovely, how about some late roses?"
  • Mrs. Angelo: "I have a nice head..."
  • Father Toni: "Right then. Let's go with the head. Now, about the fall festival...."
So I must admit that the spectacle of a parade in St Petersburg, featuring body parts that John Bosco's family thought were safely buried almost 200 years ago, strikes me as a bizarre combination the macabre, the melodramatic and the medieval.

Give the saint a break, I say, restore some dignity to his memory, and consign such rituals to the history of the Middle Ages. We didn't have a Reformation for nothing, you know.



Pastor Tim said...

Your mock committee conversation resembles many Monty Python sketches. "Right then. . ."

Darrell said...

It does seem strange that so much emphasis is put on mortal remains when the is supposed to be an empty shell after death. I don't think i'd make a good catholic. Too hard to understand the customs. Hell, I barely make a good christian in general!

Anonymous said...

There is a wonderful book "How We Die" by Sherwin Huland that dives into numerous causes of death (AIDS, cancer, heart attacks, etc) and how our living bodies are destroyed. He also writes about how death used to be a familiar event -- dying in your home, body washed/dressed by family, casket laid out in the living room. Now we die in hospitals surrounded by machines, our bodies made up by morticians. I would guess that people before the mid-late 1800's (when morticians and imbalming became common place) where used to death and that skulls and body parts were not viewed as gotesque. View pictures of the mummies of Palermo (Silicy).

Jesse said...

You know, I think we do death better now than we did twenty years ago. The hospice movement has helped a lot. But death is one thing. Keeping the body parts around for ages was a poor, superstitious idea even in the middle ages. In the 21st Centur it seems like an appeal to voyeurism, like the ads for the Rippley's museum in St. Augustine. Those ads seem to ask, "Why consider the sweep of 500 years of history when you can see a two headed cow?"

kathy k said...

Sounds like a Halloween event. How could anyone take it seriously (or spiritually) anyway.