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Proofed to the bone - Nerd of the month

Since the beginning of Christianity, relics have been an important part of sacred rites. Already in one of the first house churches in the Trikila - district at the gates of Rome - fragments of Peter's bones were allegedly laid down to celebrate the mass in secret. Even with the legalisation and establishment as the state religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine, this did not change. For centuries, the relic trade was an integral part of Christianity.

Today, the possession of a relic is no longer a prerequisite for the consecration of a church, nor is the trade with relics supported by the Vatican. However, relics that are already in circulation must fulfill two conditions. Firstly, they must be kept in a sealed urn in a safe place. Secondly, the relic must be accompanied by a document issued by the bishop of the diocese, confirming its authenticity and describing the exact contents of the relic urn.

But how does the Vatican ensure that millions of pilgrims worship the real bones? Thank God, the Catholic Church has found a scientific and impeccable testing method for this.

If there is any doubt about the authenticity of a relic, the bishop of the diocese that owns the relic is allowed to check it. To do this, he must first send an application to Rome, where the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and the Beatified will process the application and grant permission for further examination. Once the bishop has received this permission, he - or a delegation chosen by him - must go to the place where the relics are kept on a previously fixed day. The bishop has to bring a notary, a medical expert (pathologist, forensic pathologist...) and other assistants with him who must be appointed by him in advance. For the examination of the relic, the urn is opened in a closed room and said document, kind of a description of the contents, is read out. After being stated by a notary, the contents of the urn are spread out on a table, which has been covered with a cloth to protect the dignity of the relic. No part of the relic is allowed to leave the locked room during the examination. The "sacred" bones are cleaned and inspected to verify that the contents of the document and those of the urn match. Should the medical expert deem it necessary to carry out further examinations, the permission of the bishop must be obtained beforehand. It is not permitted to remove the relic from the room for these examinations. When the examination is completed, the relic is placed in a new urn and sealed again.

What conclusions can one draw from an investigation like this? Even after the inspection, one cannot confirm that the relic is actually what it promises to be. However, general statements can be made about the relic. The content of the document belonging to it is examined and the approximate age of the relic can also be confirmed in further examinations. So you can usually assume that you really have a skull, finger bone or wood splinter in front of you that comes from approximately the right period. When it comes to the authenticity of the objects, however, we must continue to rely on the credibility of centuries-old documents issued by bishops and relic dealers. All in all, due to the multitude and frequent duplication of relics, it is becoming increasingly clear that not all relics are what they claim to be.

Signed: Louisa Schwarz

Düsseldorf, June 2023

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