Holy Bones, Why We're Obsessed With Relics

The office of the bishop of Wurzburg recently received the rib of Saint Aquilinus. But why are the faithful obsessed with relics?

The relics of Padre Pio at the Vatican in Feb. 2016
The relics of Padre Pio at the Vatican in Feb. 2016
Bastian Benrath

MUNICH — It's just a rib. But it's the rib of a man born in the German city of Würzburg who was offered the esteemed position to become the bishop of Cologne. But he refused that post to become a wandering preacher, and was subsequently fatally stabbed in the neck on the streets of Milan. This, the story of Saint Aquilinus, all happened more than 1,000 years ago.

It's said that Aquilinus' blood-drenched corpse lay on the street, unnoticed, all day long until it was discovered by a group of porters at dusk and was brought to Milan's Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore, where to this day the barely decomposed, mummified corpse was kept in a reliquary made of silver and crystal.

Recently, a delegation from the office of the Milan Archbishop took a rib from the corpse to Würzburg, where it was placed in a church so it could be venerated locally by the faithful. The question, however, is why. What does a 1,000-year-old bone do for those who look upon it?

There are two answers to this question. One a theological argument, the other more of this world. The former harks back to the Book of Revelations in which John talks about Christian Martyrs, saying that "… I saw beneath the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered due to the word of God and the testimony they had given."

Jürgen Vorndran, a priest at Würzburg Cathedral, explained that there's a relic under nearly every altar in Catholic churches due to this passage. "The naming of the place ‘beneath the altar" is quite important," he says. Vorndran, who was responsible for organizing the move of the relic from Milan, says that in the Catholic mind, the bones of a human who was willing to die for his or her faith are holy.

"Some saints have 28 legs'

But what good does it do to be near these holy bones? "Try to imagine that your beloved grandmother has died. What do you do to remember her by?" asks Vorndran. I would look at her picture or visit her grave, I reply. "Exactly. If you want to feel close to her, you visit her grave," Vorndran says.

People seek places of memory, he says. "This is something inherently human," the theologian believes. All major world religions venerate grave sites for this reason. Since Aquilinus is buried in Milan, his hometown of Würzburg should have a rib at the very least.

Lucrative business

The relics of saints, however, are also a lucrative business. The need to venerate the limbs of corpses has attracted illegal activity. "Some saints have 28 legs," quips Cologne-based church expert Manfred Becker-Huberti. Sometimes relics are created by putting the bones of a dead person next to those of a saint, in the hope that the holiness would transfer. "The beliefs created about relics can be quite fantastical."

Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore — Photo: Bernt Rostad

When a person is beatified nowadays, his or her existing remains are carefully checked to avoid malfeasance, explains Becker-Huberti. The trading of relics is prohibited but it's nonetheless increasing, especially within Europe. When monasteries and abbeys are abandoned, their relics often fall into the wrong hands.

The Aquilinus relic, however, was requested to be sent to Würzburg by the office of the city's bishop. Vorndran kept watch as the rib was taken from the mummified body. He saw the gaping hole on the right side of the saint's neck, where he was believed to have been stabbed.

In front of the parish church of Saint Peter and Paul in Würzburg you can find a statue of Saint Aquilinus. This will now hold his rib.

Vorndran says that the statue depicts a mistake. "The dagger is inserted into the left side of his neck, which is incorrect. If a right-handed assassin stabbed him from behind, the wound should be on the right side of the neck." The imprecision of both art and history is yet another reason the bona fide relics mean so much.

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A Mother In Spain Denied Child Custody Because She Lives In Rural Area

A court in Spain usurps custody of the one-year-old boy living with his mother in the "deep" part of the Galicia region, forced to instead live with his father in the southern city of Marbella, which the judge says is "cosmopolitan" with good schools and medical care. Women's rights groups have taken up the mother's case.

A child in Galician countryside

Laure Gautherin

A Spanish court has ordered the withdrawal of a mother's custody of her one-year-old boy because she is living in the countryside in northwestern Spain, where the judge says the child won't have "opportunities for the proper development of his personality."

The case, reported Monday in La Voz de Galicia, has sparked outrage from a women's rights association but has also set off reactions from politicians of different stripes across the province of Galicia, defending the values of rural life.

Judge María Belén Ureña Carazo, of the family court of Marbella, a city on the southern coast of 141,000 people, has ordered the toddler to stay with father who lives in the city rather than with his mother because she was living in "deep Galicia" where the child would lack opportunities to "grow up in a happy environment."

Front page of La Voz de Galicia - October 25, 2021

Front page of La Voz de Galicia - Monday 25 October, 2021

La Voz de Galicia

Better in a "cosmopolitan" city?

The judge said Marbella, where the father lives, was a "cosmopolitan city" with "a good hospital" as well as "all kinds of schools" and thus provided a better environment for the child to thrive.

The mother has submitted a formal complaint to the General Council of the Judiciary that the family court magistrate had acted with "absolute contempt," her lawyer told La Voz de Galicia.

The mother quickly accumulated support from local politicians and civic organizations. The Clara Campoamor association described the judge's arguments as offensive, intolerable and typical of "an ignorant person who has not traveled much."

The Xunta de Galicia, the regional government, has addressed the case, saying that any place in Galicia meets the conditions to educate a minor. The Socialist party politician Pablo Arangüena tweeted that "it would not hurt part of the judiciary to spend a summer in Galicia."

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