Blood and beatification

Posted on January 18, 2011

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Pope Benedict XVI has announced that John Paul II will be beatified on May 1st after the Vatican approved a purported miracle in his name. Of course, it would have been truly miraculous if no unexplainable event had been tied to his person given the amount of publicity surrounding the efforts to beatify him and the various human cognitive quirks that have been discussed here and in many other places. The description of the process that the Vatican went through in checking the miracle story reminds me of the vetting process that potential political candidates go through to ensure they do not have any significant ‘dirt’ that is likely to be revealed come election time. Failing the Vatican finding such dirt in Wojtyła’s past, it is quite certain that he will be canonised a saint in the relatively near future.

But that is not what I wish to draw attention to at this juncture. Rather, what is quite fascinating to me is that a vial of John Paul II’s blood is to be encased in crystal and turned into a relic. This is, of course, a very old tradition of the Catholic Church with countless reliquaries containing bits of medieval Saints being put on show in churches all over Europe. For example, anyone visiting St. Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest can view the saint’s right hand in an ornate box. It used to be the case, in fact, that dead saints would have their remains divided up so that numerous churches could have relics connected to them. This gruesome practice, at least, is unlikely to be repeated in the case of John Paul II. Yet, even the veneration of the blood hits very many of the essentialist, magical thinking buttons that people like Bruce Hood have been doing research on.

I’ll allow a priest to express my thoughts on this (original in Polish):

Father Krzysztof Mądel agrees that displaying the blood of the Pope set in crystal is an idea straight out of the Church’s medieval practices. “At that time, the faithful could not read or write and knew little about the world. They needed different religious stimuli. But the times have changed and the cultural context means that blood used as a relic could be judged negatively”, he states. In addition, he thinks that it is important to explain how the archbishop of Cracow came into possession of this blood, “I can not imagine that someone, shortly before Wojtyła’s death, could be thinking about the future [canonisation] process and was securing ‘mementoes’.”

I’d agree with much of that, except to point out that the fundamental cognitive context has not changed. I might also add that talk of people needing different religious stimuli at different times is a lovely example of adroit framing.

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Posted in: religion