Friday, April 11


Catacomb Saints

We've discussed the phenomenon of the "catacomb saints" of the 19th century and before, how the graveyards of the early Christians were quite literally mined for relics to edify and astound the faithful in distant lands. Alert reader Hermann tells us, in one of our comments threads below,
Since time immemorial, there is a processus canonicus in order to make it clear whether somebody is a saint or not. These trials usually take decades at least - sometimes centuries. In the case of catacomb saints, these procedures were dispensed with. People used to think that everybody buried ad catacumbas must have been a martyr during one of the persecutions in ancient Rome. At some point during the processus canonicus, the grave of the candidate for sainthood was (and still is) opened and his remains are examined. In times past, the bones were put into a new display case of glass, crystal or similar. This case either remained in the same church or was carried in a procession to another. It usually was put upon one of the altars. The gilding was often done in nunneries. Mostly, each and every bone was sewn around with (or into a tube of) gold thread, but as I understand, there are other techniques, too (possibly involving a silversmith).
He also notes, interestingly:
These Katakombenheilige (saints of the catacombs) make for an interesting chapter in the history of the Counter-reformation in the Baroque aera. In the 16th century, Austria was Protestantized. In the 17th century, Rome was back, Trent was put into effect, the Turks were railroaded off Vienna, out of Hungary and just managed to hold on to today's Bosnia, Serbia, Bulgaria and parts of Roumania. So, many old churches were renovated or built anew. On many a baroque side-altar, such catacomb saints were placed for veneration. The catacombs were, literally, mined for bones; if no name could be found, the remains were formally named by the Pope. The new-found saint was then given (never sold - it is a sacrilege to sell relics) to a diocese in need of relics. The name "Donatus" (the given one) was rather popular, Donatus of Muenstereifel (Germany) being just one example among others.
(Actually, this is a nice idea, as it might be a good way to assign saints to all those folks without saints to their name, like Madison, Kelly, Skipper, Cameron, ad infinitum. St. Taylor of Cittavechia, anyone?)

The most famous instance of all this was St. Philomena, with her extravagantly excessive martyrdom and wonder-working street-cred, who got booted off the calendar in 1961, for slightly different and perhaps more prudent reasons than those behind the buzz-kill reform of 1969 that lost us Katherine, Barbara and the like, until Katherine was recently restored, and the others retained in the Extraordinary Form as a result of the Motu Proprio. Archaeologists indicated the discovered relics may have not belonged to the same person whose name was found (in out-of-order, fragmented plates) on the tomb, and it's unclear whether or not either of them was a martyr. Of course, such recognitions of martyrdom and sanctity aren't infallible in the same way a canonization is, so I'm inclined to trust the archaeologists in this instance.

In any case, it appears her cult continues in spite of all this, whether or not it's supposed to, and while I have my own very large doubts about the relics, it is very apparent from the miracles and visions associated with her that someone in in Heaven is answering the phone, even if it might be a wrong number. (There is, I suppose, the possibility that some elderly, obscure Stylite monk or a seventeenth-century bishop might have gotten assigned to handling her prayerful correspondence up there and we'd never know it.) Anyway, heck, she's an adorably precocious wonder-working teenager with an excessive number of sanctoral attributes, what's not to like? Clearly we've discovered the annoying-but-cute little sister of the heavenly sanctoral family, and she seems to be in a generous mood in spite of everything.

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