ROME – Wars have been fought to obtain them. Medieval monks and modern-day bandits have pilfered them. Two millennia after the first Christian martyrs’ blood stained Rome, the temptation of, and fascination with, religious relics endures. And the canonization of two well-loved popes, John Paul II and John XXIII, on Sunday is feeding a seemingly endless appetite for fresh relics.

Here is a look at relics through the ages.


“The Crusades were all about generating relics,” says David Morgan, a Duke University professor for religious studies. The series of wars, waged by European Christians to regain the Holy Land from Muslims, saw Crusaders bring back “hundreds and hundreds” of relics from Jerusalem, from Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) and other places steeped in Christian history.


Pilgrims have to eat, sleep and travel. During the Middle Ages, in particular, whole towns lived off the pilgrim business – and relics helped to reel them in. A common way for a town or monastery to procure a relic was theft. Monks themselves would “sneak in and break it out of the altar,” Morgan says – and snatch it away for their own monastery. Typically, miraculous healings were proclaimed at the place that now had the relic, to show the saint’s approval.


In 1991, the so-called “sacred chin” of St. Anthony of Padua was stolen from the northern Italian city’s basilica by four masked bandits, who threatened worshippers as they made off with the relic. Two months later, the saint’s jawbone and several teeth were found in the grass near Rome’s main airport. St. Anthony’s name is often invoked by faithful who have lost objects. The circumstances over what led to the recovery in the field near the airport were murky. Later, one of the alleged bandits boasted that his gang stole the relic to force Italian authorities to release a cousin from jail.


When Naples’ cardinal holds up a flask containing St. Gennaro’s dried blood, that southern Italian city’s cathedral is packed. Many Neapolitans believe that if the 4th-century martyr’s blood liquefies, it’s a miracle boding well for the city.


Like people who pay top dollar to own their favorite athlete’s uniform, Christian faithful are attracted to relics because they are physical things that “remind us of persons we are modeling ourselves after,” says the Rev. Raymond Kupke, a church history professor at Seton Hall University. Relics help the faithful to associate themselves with saints who, they believe, are in heaven and serve as an aid to prayer.


The Vatican considers any sale of relics to be sacrilege, and the faithful are forbidden to buy or sell them. But they can pay tidy sums for reliquaries, the often gold-covered or jewel-encrusted containers holding the fragment of bone, blood-stained cloth or other relic of a saint.

Click on eBay for a virtual roll call of relics whose sellers claim authenticity. One recent day’s offerings included a snippet of white fabric with a smudge of crimson stain, described as a “first-class” relic of John Paul II and bearing a $9,800 price tag. The same seller was also offering a tiny scrap of fabric from what was described as a vestment worn by John XXIII for a mere $98.

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