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On stealing relics

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Only a few days ago we heard that the heart of Dublin’s patron saint, Laurence O’Toole, had been stolen from Christ Church Cathedral. Most reports (see herehere and here) made only brief mention of the fact that Christ Church is the Anglican cathedral of Dublin. No doubt that distinction means little to some, but anyone with an acquaintance of Anglican sacramental practice (from the Archbishop of Sydney‘s denouncement of sacramentalism to the Tridentine liturgy of St. Clement’s), as well as the complexities of the Irish religious scene, will find the situation fascinating.

I wouldn’t dare to comment about what this means on the ground in Ireland (this article gets at it a little better). Nor do I think (like this fellow) that there is some deep lesson to be had about the respective hearts of Anglicanism and Catholicism. But I marvel at the obvious that no one seems to have noticed: this wasn’t just a theft, it was the theft of a relic. No one came in and stripped gold off the statues. Stealing a relic is in the same category as stealing the sacred species from the tabernacle. The difference is, of course, that a relic is more likely to be sold. But the market for relics these days is limited, and it is hard to imagine someone stealing the heart of St. Laurence for profit.

Why steal a relic? Relic theft was common in the Middle Ages, for a variety of reasons. But even in the later Middle Ages, when the sale of relics was increasingly common, profit was only one of them. You could steal a relic because you wanted it for yourself. You could steal it for your own church or religious order (think of the famous theft for San Marco in Venice), or you could steal out of righteous zeal for the saint, whose current dwelling place was clearly unworthy. In some cases the saint’s body or relics might even refuse to be moved, or, contrariwise, their ease of transport might indicate saintly approval.

Of course, no one but the thief and his maker know why the heart was stolen. We don’t live in the Middle Ages, so it may be that my quick historical sketch says nothing at all about the current case. Nonetheless, it bothers me that the public comments about the theft are so routinely secular. What would it mean to imagine that St. Laurence O’Toole had rejected the Anglican cathedral? Surely, in the interest of peaceful ecumenism, the Catholic Pro-Cathedral would deny any such claim. But could it be that our religious imaginations are impoverished if we cannot consider the theft in any mode beyond property and law? If the relic was merely a piece of historical amusement (and I’m not saying it was), one wouldn’t blame St. Laurence for wishing his heart to be elsewhere. Nor would we blame Dublin Anglicans for taking it personally.

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