Perplexing Prepuce: An Excerpt From “An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town”

July 23, 2009 at 1:34 pm | Posted in books, Europe, history | 2 Comments

by David Farley

"Irreverent Curiosity" author David Farley in Calcata, Italy, north of Rome.

As Don Dario Magnoni draped the sacred vestments over his apple-shaped body, the pinch in his stomach blossomed into a knot. He had some bad news he’d been keeping from his congregation. He’d decided late one recent night, after polishing off a bottle of cheap Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, that this Sunday would be the day to tell them—after all, the New Year’s Day procession was just weeks away. The reason for the knot of nerves was that he didn’t know how he was going to make the announcement to his small audience. Church attendance had been decreasing since he arrived in the village in the early 1970s—now only a sprinkling of villagers regularly attended the Sunday mass—and Dario hoped the chilly December weather would keep more of the faithful from their weekly obligation. He straightened out his white chasuble and took a deep breath before sliding open the door that connected his house to the adobe-like church.

“This year,” Don Dario began the announcement, “the holy relic will not be exposed to the devotion of the faithful. It has vanished. Sacrilegious thieves have taken it from my home.” The priest paused, waiting for calamity to ensue. But the smattering of worshippers, simply stared back at him in silence, a reaction Don Dario took as indifference.

The holy relic that Don Dario spoke of wasn’t just the residuum of any holy human—nor was it just any body part. It was the carne vera sacra, “real holy flesh,” as his fellow townspeople of Calcata admiringly referred to it. It was the foreskin of Jesus Christ, the only bodily piece that he could have conceivably left on earth after his ascension into heaven, jealously guarded over in this secluded medieval hill town for the past four and a half centuries.

But now, in 1983, the relic was gone. After Mass, some of the parishioners retreated to a nearby bar. Amid the posters and scarves of the Lazio football team, the churchgoers sipped espresso and prosecco and shook their heads in disbelief. “Who would take our cherished relic?” someone said without looking for an answer. But ancient Giuseppina shook her tiny fragile fist in the air and said: “I know who took it—they took it!”

The mystery of just what the Holy Foreskin was doing in the priest’s house—in a shoe box at the back of his wardrobe, no less—and why and how it disappeared, kicked off the most cryptic case of relic theft in centuries. Who would steal it? And what would they want with it?

For the last century, the Church’s official position on the foreskin was one of silence, set out in a decree on February 3, 1900. Pope Leo XIII stated that anyone who talked about, wrote about, or commented on the Holy Foreskin would face excommunication. The Church feared the relic was being sought out simply as an “irreverent curiosity.” The people of Calcata could still hold their New Year’s Day procession with the relic, but that would be the only time each year it would be on display—and it would have to be from a distance and without commentary. The decree also stated that the word prepuzio (foreskin) should no longer be used when referring to the object inside the reliquary. Reliquia (relic) or cosa (thing) would be just fine from now on.

But long before this “thing” had its quiet falling-out with the Church, Christ’s foreskin was one of the most popular relics in Christendom. Saints pined for it: St. Catherine of Siena, the 14th-century Doctor of the Church and self-proclaimed spiritual bride of Christ, said she wore the foreskin around her ring finger; that same century, St. Bridget of Sweden claimed to have had a vision of the Virgin Mary, who told her that the Holy Foreskin (then kept in Rome) was the real deal. From the 9th to 18th centuries, several popes wrote about the pious prepuce and/or granted indulgences to those who celebrated it, including Leo III, Innocent III, Eugenius IV, Pius II, Sixtus IV, Sixtus V, Urban VIII, Innocent X, Alexander VII, and Benedict XIII. The thirteenth-century saint Bonaventure tried settling a theological dispute about the foreskin’s existence. And many of the players in the 16th-century Reformation (or those who inspired it)—Jan Hus, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Erasmus among them—have weighed in. While in Rome, nineteenth-century French writer Stendhal had hoped to visit Calcata to see it, and several other scribes have included it in their novels: James Joyce (Ulysses), Umberto Eco (Bandolino), Chuck Palahniuk (Choke), Jonathan Gash (The Grail Tree), and José Saramago (The Gospel According to Jesus Christ).

And now, I was about to become the latest writer, not merely to be drawn into the lore of this most singular relic, but also into the mystery of its disappearance and the quest to solve that mystery.



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  1. What a totally, utterly fabulous story! Is there a movie deal yet???

  2. Some great views of Calcata, home of the holy relic:

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