There is an old saying that “The fish are the last to discover the sea.” The meaning of this of course is that when we are completely surrounded by something it seems normal to the point of being invisible and we become oblivious to how it appears to outsiders.
Having grown up in what comedian Jim Gaffigan might describe as a “Shiite” Irish Catholic family, and protected by 17 years of Catholic education (kindergarten through college), I was more or less immune to the ubiquitous and graphic gore surrounding almost everything in my Catholic world. In fact, the first time I remember thinking about it at all was on my wedding day when a Jewish friend who had apparently never been inside of an old-school blood and guts Catholic church was blown away by what he saw there. The graphic depictions of brutality on the stained glass windows and on the stations of the cross led him to admit that he too would hate the sons of bitches who had done all of those terrible things to Jesus.
Until that moment, I don’t think that it had ever dawned on me how much Catholics celebrate death and bloodshed.
Throughout my Catholic school days we would cheerfully sing songs at Mass with stanzas such as the following from a song entitled “Sons of God:”
Sons of God, hear his holy word,
Gather ‘round the table of the Lord.
EAT HIS BODY! DRINK HIS BLOOD!
And we’ll sing a SONG OF LOVE.
Even in context, it is now hard for me to think of this as a “love song” unless you happen to be living on an island of cannibals. Other songs such as “Oh sacred head now wounded” with happy refrains like “Oh bleeding head so wounded, reviled and put to scorn” could also lighten the heart of any ten-year-old seeking an uplifting religious experience. [See the wonderful rendition of this song from Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ.]
I suppose that none of this should be surprising when a religion celebrates events with names such as ”the murder of the holy innocents,” “the agony in the garden,” the “scourging at the pillar,” and the “crowning with thorns.”
For Catholics,the highest admiration has always been reserved for those individuals who died for their faith, and the more gruesome the death, the more attention and esteem they earn. Very early in my elementary school years we were regaled by the story of St. Tarcisius, a child martyr that is now the patron saint of altar boys. (Yes, I actually was an altar boy.) An account of the death of St. Tarcisius from the web page of the Catholic television network EWTN follows:
“Tarcisius was a twelve-year-old acolyte during one of the fierce Roman persecutions of the third century, probably during that of Valerian. Each day, from a secret meeting place in the catacombs where Christians gathered for Mass, a deacon would be sent to the prisons to carry the Eucharist to those Christians condemned to die. At one point, there was no deacon to send and so St. Tarcisius, an acolyte, was sent carrying the “Holy Mysteries” to those in prison. On the way, he was stopped by boys his own age who were not Christians but knew him as a playmate and lover of games. He was asked to join their games, but this time he refused and the crowd of boys noticed that he was carrying something. Somehow, he was also recognized as a Christian, and the small gang of boys, anxious to view the Christian “Mysteries,” became a mob and turned upon Tarcisius with fury. He went down under the blows, and it is believed that a fellow Christian drove off the mob and rescued the young acolyte. The mangled body of Tarcisius was carried back to the catacombs, but the boy died on the way from his injuries. He was buried in the cemetery of St. Callistus, and his relics are claimed by the church of San Silvestro in Capite. In the fourth century, Pope St. Damasus wrote a poem about this “boy-martyr of the Eucharist” and says that, like another St. Stephen, he suffered a violent death at the hands of a mob rather than give up the Sacred Body to “raging dogs.” His story became well known when Cardinal Wiseman made it a part of his novel Fabiola, in which the story of the young acolyte is dramatized and a very moving account given of his martyrdom and death. Tarcisius, one of the patron saints of altar boys, has always been an example of youthful courage and devotion, and his story was one that was told again and again to urge others to a like heroism in suffering for their faith.”
I am still not exactly sure what the intent of repeatedly telling us this story was, although it was clearly meant to inspire us. However, the message that was received was that we should aspire to be like Tarcisius and that if we played our cards right we too could be beaten to death by an angry mob and then be admired by others.
Angela’s Ashes author Frank McCourt reflected on this peculiar tendency to make children reflect upon their own mortality when writing about his grim Catholic upbringing in Limerick, Ireland. According to McCourt, someone was always making him promise that he would die for something. His amiable but shiftless father would stumble home drunk after a night on the town, roust his young children out of bed, and make them promise that they would be willing to “die for Ireland.” His schoolmasters regularly made him promise to "die for the faith if called upon." In McCourt's own words (p. 113), "The master says it's a glorious thing to die for the Faith and Dad says it's a glorious thing to die for Ireland and I wonder if there's anyone in the world who would like us to live." McCourt wryly wondered why it always had to be about “dying for the faith” and why no one ever asked him to “go swimming for the faith” or to “eat candy for the faith.”
Staying on message, the nuns that taught me at Gate of Heaven School in Dallas, Pennsylvania, rarely missed an opportunity to remind us that "You know not the day nor the hour," and every Ash Wednesday our parish priest would grind ashes into our foreheads while mumbling "Thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return."
A suitable role model for adults is found in the personage of St. Blaise. Blaise was a physician in the early 6th century who is best remembered for having saved a young boy from choking to death on a fish bone. (Every year on the feast of St. Blaise (February 3rd) we would have our throats blessed by having our necks inserted between two large candles.) Anyway, right after healing the choking boy, Blaise was beaten, had his flesh ripped apart by iron combs designed to extract wool from sheep, and then beheaded as part of the local persecution of Christians. The conjunction of these two events were enough to enshrine him in our memories, and every February 3rd in the city of Dubrovnik his head, both of his hands, and a bit of his throat are paraded around town.
In Portugal, there is a "chapel of bones" built by a Franciscan monk in the 16th century. It contains the bones of 5,000 monks, and the phrase ’Melior est die mortis die nativitatis’ (’Better is the day of death than the day of birth’) is written on its roof.
Perhaps the ultimate of macabre Catholic traditions is the preservation of the bodies and/or body parts of long-dead saints.
In my own hometown of Galesburg, Illinois, the body of a nine-year-old boy is preserved in a glass case inside one of the local Catholic churches. It looks like something that you might see in a spooky wax museum, and it sort of freaked my daughter out when she first saw it as a little girl. It is the actual body of St. Crescent, who was martyred in Rome during the Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians during the third century. St. Crescent had been entombed in the Roman catacombs until 1838, when the body was exhumed and entrusted to the religious order (the Rosminians) that eventually founded the first Catholic parish in Galesburg. The body was shipped to Illinois in the hope that it would help the church attract new followers, much as the freak shows outside of circus tents were designed to turn bystanders into paying customers for the big show inside. Local legend has it that it is only the presence of St. Crescent in our city that protects Galesburg from tornadoes.
In the same vein (pardon the pun), the dried blood of St. Januarius is said to protect Naples, Italy, from volcanoes, earthquakes, and plagues.
As evidenced by my one other encounter with the body parts of a saint, these relics are most effective if you publicly flaunt them at least once a year. (e.g., See the aforementioned story of St. Blaise.)
In 2003 I was in Budapest with a small group of American academics. We were strolling around the streets taking in the sights when we came upon a procession of elaborately costumed people accompanied by musicians that sounded vaguely like a small town American junior high school marching band. There was a great deal of pomp and solemnity, and the focal point of the assemblage was a skeletal human right hand held aloft in a glass box. By luck, we had stumbled upon the annual Holy Right Hand Procession in which the right hand of St. Stephen (the first Hungarian king and the patron saint of Hungary) is paraded around the city. I really did not think too much about this until my companions began talking about it. They found the whole affair to be grisly and more than a little bit creepy, and they were somewhat taken aback by my nonchalance.
This became the first time I had ever been put in the position of trying to explain the Catholic rationale for such practices, and I do not think that it went very well.
A certain degree of gullibility from the masses is required to maintain these corporeal celebrations. For example, my wife and I visited the Basilica of the Holy Blood in Bruges, Belgium, in the summer of 2013. The centerpiece of this magnificent church is a vial of blood allegedly drained from the body of Jesus Christ during the crucifixion. It was brought back to Europe by a guy returning from the crusades who claims to have received it as a reward for his great service in Jerusalem. I don’t know about you, but I would have at least required a certificate of authenticity like you get with autographed baseballs, but everyone seems to have just accepted his story as it was. Anyway, this vial of blood (or is it . . .?) became a big hit in the city and it too gets carted around town once a year during the annual Procession of the Holy Blood. On non-procession days, one can view and worship the holy blood in the church under the watchful eye of a stern looking priest, following a donation to the basilica, of course. Background organ music adds to the sacred ambiance of the event, although the rendition of Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” that we heard when we were there pushed the entire scene into the realm of the surreal.
In short, the world is apparently awash in the body parts of holy dead people, including the mummified head of St. Catherine of Siena, the tongue of St. Anthony of Padua, and the finger of St. Thomas the apostle. (Yes, the VERY finger that the doubting Thomas supposedly poked into the wounds of the risen Christ.) My favorite among these has to be the “Holy Foreskin” which was passed around Europe until the 18th century: It was believed to be the foreskin of the young circumcised Jesus Christ himself.
All of this makes me wonder what we will be treated to next. Perhaps the penis of St. Dick or the breasts of St. Tittia?
A sign that an individual has truly secured the status of a holy person with a lock on future sainthood is to display “stigmata,” which are marks, sores, or even bleeding from the hands, wrists, and feet corresponding to the crucifixion wounds of Jesus. (Apparently, mere rectal bleeding due to hemorrhoids doesn’t even get you out of purgatory.) Such a person is known as a stigmatic or a stigmatist. This phenomenon was parodied by actor Eric Idle in an otherwise forgettable movie called "Nuns on the Run” in which Idle’s character is a crook who disguises himself as a nun to hide from the authorities in a convent. He introduces himself to the Mother Superior as “Sister Euphemia of the Five Wounds . . . five wounds for short!”
Allow me to return to the topic of the crusades for a moment. I grew up believing that crusaders were courageous heroes who risked their lives to return the “Holy Lands” to Christian control, just as God would have wanted. My 4th grade Catholic school history book (Before Our Nation Began, pp. 158-159) described the crusades and crusaders as follows:
“The Pope [Urban II] asked the people of Western Europe to rescue the Holy Land from the Turks and to help the Eastern Empire. . . . Plans were made for a great war against the Moslem Turks. The war was called a Crusade from the Latin word which means “cross.” The soldiers who took part in the Crusade were called Crusaders. . . . Why did so many men wish to become Crusaders? Some probably longed for adventure. Some nobles saw a chance to gain new wealth. But a large number of people wished to go on the Crusades because they were good Catholics. They wished to serve God. The Pope had asked them to rescue the Holy Land, and they were answering the call of the Pope.”
The zeal of the crusaders coupled with their lack of squeamishness about blood and gore led to some real atrocities. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, in his book entitled The Better Angels of Our Nature (pp.140-141), documented the creativity employed by the crusaders in pursuit of their goals:
“Between 1095 and 1208 Crusader armies were mobilized to fight a “just war” to retake Jerusalem from the Muslim Turks, earning them remission from their sins and a ticket to heaven. They massacred Jewish communities on the way, and after besieging and sacking Nicea, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Constantinople, they slaughtered their Muslim and Jewish populations. [Political scientist R. J.] Rummel estimates the death toll at 1 million. The world had around 400 million people at the time, about a sixth of the number of the mid 20th century, so the death toll of the Crusader massacres as a proportion of the world’s population would today come out to about 6 million, equivalent to the Nazi’s genocide of the Jews.”
“In the 13th century the Cathars of southern France embraced the Albigensian heresy, according to which there are two gods, one of good and one of evil. An infuriated papacy, in collusion with the king of France, sent waves of armies to the region, which killed around 200,000 of them. To give you a sense of the armies’ tactics, after capturing the city of Bram in 1210 they took a hundred of the defeated soldiers, cut off their noses and upper lips, gouged out the eyes of all but one, and had him lead the others to the city of Cabaret to terrorize its citizens into surrendering.”
Do not even get me started on the Inquisition, which killed more than 300,000 suspected infidels, heretics, Jews, witches, and undesirable characters in general (Rummel, 1997). Many of these killings occurred via the most painful of torturous deaths (such as being “broken on the wheel”) that are so fiendish and horrifying that even I choose not to go there.
This essay is not an indictment of Catholicism in particular; it just happens to be the religious tradition with which I am most familiar. There is certainly no shortage of ferocity and bloodshed in other religions (Islam, for example), but it is curious how those living within their personal theological fishbowls so clearly see the barbarism of other people’s practices while celebrating the holiness of their own.
Lynn, J. (1990). Nuns on the Run.
McCourt, F. (1996). Angela’s Ashes. New York: Scribner.
Pinker, S. (2011) The Better Angels of Our Nature. New York: Viking.
Rummel, R. J. (1997). Statistics of Democide. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction.
Sharkey, D., Furlong, P. J., & Margaret, S. (1953). Before Our Nation Began. New York: W.H. Sadler, Inc.