First, I can see how this book may prove very beneficial for me in the parish setting in which I work. One of my responsibilities in my parish is to help with the RCIA program. RCIA is the process through which either an unbaptized person or person baptized in another Christian tradition becomes Catholic. Both of these groups of people must receive the sacrament of confirmation. As a part of that sacrament they choose saint names as confirmation names. Saints Preserved is a book that I know I can provide as a resource for those choosing their saint names in this process because it contains large quantities of valuable information about the saints.
Second, I think Saints Preserved may prove a valuable resource for Catholic travelers. The book points out important shrines and relics in different areas of the globe. These might be places that Catholic travelers would like to visit if they are on vacation or even can squeeze in on a business trip. One addition that might have been helpful in this regard would have been an index by regions in the back of the book. However, I think it would be easy enough to Google “Catholic Saints Region-X” and look in this encyclopedia to see if there might be shrines in a particular place.
Third, from a brief Amazon search and a perusal of some of the reviews at the beginning of the book, this text does appear to be one of a kind. If you have an interest in relics, this is the book for you, not least of all because there are no other comprehensive encyclopedic or dictionary type resources you can consult. That’s not to say that the author didn’t do an excellent job, only to say, even if he didn’t you’d still need to buy this book.
Finally, I’ll close with my one qualm with the book. The text lacks some details in terms of controversies surrounding relics. I realize that relics are a mostly part of the personal piety of a lot of Catholics. But, from my own standpoint, I’m very interested in some of the information regarding those controversies. The easiest example would be the entry on the Shroud of Turin. Craughwell does make mention of the controversies surrounding the shroud, but states “The tests, results, and debate are too lengthy and complex to summarize here.” I would have appreciated even a footnote/endnote leading to said tests, results, and debates. As it stands, there is a bibliography at the end but not much notation throughout.
All in all, my main criticism doesn’t detract from the fact that I would recommend the book. I realize that the things I’m interested in may not have been within the scope of the book and may not interest most people who would potentially buy this book. Overall, it’s a great resource for Catholics and non-Catholics alike who want to learn about relics.
The book is a basic encyclopedia. So rather than chapters it has entries, arranged for the most part in alphabetical order. There are some sub-entries for martyrs in certain areas and some other topics that don’t necessarily fit within the alphabetical layout. But, for “major” saints one would locate them alphabetically. The entries range from the names of saints to important sets of relics like the Aachen relics.
In addition to the the entries, there is also a helpful introduction that gives some background on relics as well as a bibliography for those who want to learn more. The introduction covers the reasoning behind relics as well as covering the classifications of relics (i.e. first class, second class and third class). For example, Craughwell notes Biblical background for relics like the story in 2 Kings where a man comes back to life after touching the bones of Elisha 13. He also notes the caution that St. Jerome gives regarding the use of relics.
The entries on saints generally contain two different kinds of information. They first contain information on the life of the saint in question. Often this consists of giving some particulars of the saint’s life, such as when they lived, where they were from or where they ministered, worked, etc. In addition, there is often information concerning why a particular person was considered a saint.
Second, the entries discuss the relics associated with the saint. One can find out what the relics are and where they are kept, so that an interested person might visit them if they so had the inclination. The matter of of piety aside, many of these relics I find entertaining just as a sheer matter of interest.
Below, I’ve excerpted from the entry on St. Dominic (not least because I belong to Dominican parish) to give a feel for what the entries look like:
Saint Dominic (1170-1221). On August 6, 1221, Dominic died in the Dominican priory of San Nicolo delle Vigne in Blogna, Italy; he was buried behind the high altar of the priory church. In 1228 San Nicolo was greatly expanded and rededicated as San Domenico. At that time the saint’s relics were moved to a marble sarcophagus in the main body of the church where pilgrims would have access to it. In 1264 the Dominicans wanted a more impressive monument for their founder. Work on this shrine, known as the Arca di San Domenico, took nearly three centuries and involved some of the greatest artists of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, including Nicola Pisano and Michelangelo. The saint’s bones rest inside a marble sarcophagus carved by Pisano. Behind the tomb, in a golden octagonal reliquary, is the skull of the saint.
It was a crisis in the Catholic Church that set the direction of Dominic’s life. In 1203 he accompanied his bishop on a journey from their home in Osma, Spain, to southern France. There he witnessed the animosity between Catholics and Cathars, who were confusing many of the Catholic faithful and tearing the Church apart.
To read more, you’ll have to buy the book. But, stay tuned as I post my own personal reflections later in the week ….
I would like to once again thank Image Catholic Books (an imprint of Random House) for sending along a copy of Saints Preserved: An Encyclopedia of Relics by Thomas J. Craughwell. As per my normal format for book reviews, I will be posting on the author and contents then end with my personal thoughts. Yet this go round I have the privilege of posting a blog interview with the author for the first part of the review.
Thomas Craughwell has written a considerable number of books on a variety of topics. The interview questions deal more with Saints Preserved. Yet if you would like to learn more about Tom, you can check out his personal webpage: http://tomcraughwell.com/
I would like to personally thank Tom for being so generous with his time in answering my questions.
1. In reviewing your publication record, I noticed that you have published on a pretty wide variety of topics, ranging from Abraham Lincoln to topics related to the Bible. How do you choose the projects that you are going to work on at any given time? Is it just what interests you at the moment? Or, do you get requests from your publisher, etc.?
I’ve been self-employed as a writer for 19 years, and if there is anything I’ve learned it’s that specialization is the high road to bankruptcy. If it’s not immoral or illegal, I’ll write about it. In many cases publishers have come to me with a book idea and asked me to write it. But there are also cases when I’ve approached publishers, either directly or through my agent. My favorite book, Stealing Lincoln’s Body, is an example of a book I shopped around. It was published by Harvard University Press.
2. In a similar vein, why relics? I know that you have written for a number of Catholic outlets. Do relics play a significant role in your personal piety? Or was this more of a matter of interest?
It’s both. Since I was a kid I’ve loved the stories of the saints. For the last 30 years or so I’ve been studying the saints and the history of devotion to the saints, which leads to studying shrines and relics. It’s not just an academic interest—I like visiting shrines. I’ve prayed at some of the major shrines here in the United States, and when I’ve been in Europe I’ve made a point of going to pray at the tombs of some of my favorite saints, such as St. Thomas More in London and St. Aloysius Gonzaga in Rome.
3. What are two or three of the most interesting things that you personally learned about relics in writing this book?
I had heard of the Spanish nun Egeria, who about the year 382 made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and wrote an account of it. I looked up her work and found that she described in detail how the relics of True Cross and the Titulus (the board on which Pontius Pilate had written “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”) were brought out for veneration on Good Friday in Jerusalem.
Related to this was my discovery of a Frenchman, Rohault de Fleury, who was independently wealthy and had lots of time on his hands. In the 1860s he set about tracking down every fragment of the True Cross he could find and measuring it, or having it measured for him. His purpose was to discover if the old punch line was true, that there are enough purported fragments of the Cross to build a battleship. Once he had all his data, he estimated the number up by a factor of ten to account for lost or destroyed fragments. Fleury found that taken together, there were not enough fragments to build a cross large enough to crucify a man.
By the way, I also tracked down who was the first to make that claim about enough relics to build a boat—it was Erasmus.
4. This blog probably has more Protestant readers than Catholic ones. How would you briefly explain to someone from a Protestant tradition the Catholic practice of venerating relics?
Reverence for the remains and belongings of saints is rooted in Sacred Scripture, which records the wonders God wrought through relics. In 2 Kings 13:20-21 we read of a dead man being restored to life after his corpse touched the bones of the prophet Elisha. In Mark’s gospel we find the story of a woman who suffered from a hemorrhage for twelve years and was cured when she touched the hem of Christ’s garment (Mark 5:25-34). And the Acts of the Apostles recounts how Christians touched handkerchiefs and other cloths to the body of St. Paul; when these cloths were given to the sick or the possessed, “diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them” (Acts 19:11-12).
Even in times of persecution the early Christians made an earnest effort to recover the remains of the martyrs so they could be given a proper burial and their martyrdom commemorated annually with Mass celebrated at their tombs. A letter from about the year 156 A.D. describes the martyrdom of the elderly bishop of Smyrna, St. Polycarp. His body had been burned, but the Christians of Smyrna searched among the ashes for any trace of the saint that had not been consumed by the flames. “We took up his bones,” the anonymous author of the letter wrote, “which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place, where the Lord will permit us to gather ourselves together, as we are able, in gladness and joy, and to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom.”
In the fourth century St. Jerome, in his letter to Riparius, explained the proper veneration of saints and relics, “We do not worship, we do not adore [saints], for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the Creator, but we venerate the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore Him whose martyrs they are.”
The Catholic and Orthodox Churches are careful to preserve the relics of the saints in the same way that museum curators take care to preserve Abraham Lincoln’s top hat, or George Washington’s sword. These are physical links to people we admire and revere, perhaps even love.
The Catholic and Orthodox Churches teach that no one should feel uneasy visiting a shrine or venerating a relic. In many respects it is similar to visiting the grave of a beloved member of the family, or cherishing a family heirloom—but on a much higher level. The shrine or relic is a physical link with someone who was so faithful to God in this life that he or she is now glorified in the Kingdom of God forever and offered to the faithful here on earth as a model of holiness.
5. Do you have any other writing projects currently in the works?
Yes. Harvard has given me a contract for another book, this time on the first plot to assassinate Lincoln in 1861, as he passed through Baltimore en route to his first inauguration. And down the road I’ll publish a book on the rediscovery of St. Peter’s bones and tomb in 1939.
Since I have returned to the Catholic Church I have remained relatively Baptist in my day to day piety. I read a lot of scripture in my devotional time. A book on saints and relics should then prove an interesting experience for me. At any rate here’s a short review from the front matter of the book that I thought was interesting:
Relics are an often misunderstood part of the Catholic devotional life. Derided as either superstitious or just plain ‘gross,’ they are in fact an important reminder of the physicality of the saints. The saints were not mythical creatures or legendary personages, but flesh-and-blood men and women who walked the earth, ate and drank, wore clothes, wrote letters, and lived entirely human lives. Thomas Craughwell’s new book provides readers with a comprehensive guide to the most important relics in the church and where they can be found, and venerated. His book is simply one of a kind.” —James Martin, SJ, author of My Life with the Saints and The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.
You can find the first part of this review, here and more posts on this book here.
Thanks to Random House for this review copy. This is the complete review, for house-keeping purposes.
One of her underlying points, perhaps unintentionally, is that with the Protestant Reformation came the loss of religious rituals in Europe. She has spent a lot of time developing the idea that ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ means more than an abstract hope, but a commitment. So, if some one has faith in Christ, it is not that they believe that He existed, but that they have a commitment to Him and His teachings. For Armstrong, the former nun, rituals were important, across the millennium, in connecting people to their cultural gods, and no less when it came to connecting Christians to God. With the loss of the ‘real presence’ in the Eucharist, it become a theological symbol, a mere memorial, which allowed people to become further disconnected from the theology of the Cross.
It might be said, from reading Armstrong, that in a round about way, she blames atheism on the Reformation. Whether right or wrong, the loss of rituals have added to the erosion of Christianity in the lives of many people. There is no longer a ‘constant doing’ in the Christian life, but a mere ‘wait and see’ attitude. There is no commitment, but an abstract hope.