Don’t go breaking my heart

The Catholic church has this weird, one might say ghoulish, practice of preserving and displaying in churches the body parts of saints. Some believers ascribe miraculous powers to these relics.

Yesterday a bizarre robbery occurred in Dublin, Ireland in which thieves broke into a cathedral and stole the preserved heart of St. Laurence O’Toole, who lived in the 12th century and is patron saint of Dublin, and which had been displayed there since the 13th century.

I first became aware of this practice of preserving Catholic saint body parts fairly recently when a Catholic friend of mine gave as evidence for god the fact that the dead bodies of saints seemed to show no signs of decay. Intrigued, I looked into this question and found, as one might expect, nothing miraculous going on. As is usually the case with such claims, they are highly exaggerated in the telling and the small residual effects that remain when the hyperbole has been stripped away are amenable to perfectly natural explanations. Even the Catholic church no longer views the incorruptibility of bodies as evidence of sainthood.

But why steal this heart? The only reason I can think of is that this was done on a dare, probably after a few drinks, and that it will be returned intact once the perpetrators become sober again.


  1. Coragyps says

    Funny, partly-remembered story:

    Maybe forty years ago thieves stole all the communion silver from the RC cathedral in Newark, New Jersey. The local Mafia boss was interviewed on the TV news that evening, and expressed the opinion that whoever dun that shouldn’t had oughtta dun that.
    Everything was back on the front steps the next morning.

    I once saw a preserved slice of some saints’ liver in a reliquary in some museum exhibit. I never liked liver before that, either.

  2. Peter Cranny says

    And, of course, if you collect together all of the fragments of “The True Cross” you’d have enough timber to rebuild Noah’s Ark…

  3. Reginald Selkirk says

    Recall that the current Pontiff, Benedict XVI, reinstituted the Medieval practice of indulgences (the selling of forgiveness for sins) in 2007. The Holy Roman Catholic Church is not going to accept money in exchange for sin-forgiveness again, that would be corrupt. Instead, indulgences will be granted for pilgrims who travel to religious shrines.
    In an entirely unrelated background note, also recall that the current pontiff, Benedict XVI, had the Vatican start up an airlines in 2007 to fly pilgrims to religious shrines.
    Which brings us to the current situation. The robbers may not have been drunken prankers, and they may not be after money. Perhaps they will hold the heart hostage for a promise of indulgences for various sins they have committed. After all, as the Zombie Jewish Hipster said to St. Peter: “Whatsoever thou shalt bind on Earth shall be bound in Heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on Earth shall be loosed in Heaven.”

  4. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    It was the absence of relics which brought about one bit of Catholic dogma.

    In 451 St. Juvenal, Bishop of Jerusalem, was asked by the Byzantine emperor to provide some relics of Mary. Juvenal couldn’t produce any and so he said there weren’t any because Mary’s body went directly to Heaven. As a result Catholic theology holds that Jesus’s mother didn’t die but was “assumed” into Heaven.

  5. Mano Singham says

    Is that right? I had never heard of this before. Fascinating! I really should read a bit more about it.

  6. says

    This particular relic was not actually present in a Catholic church. Christchurch cathedral is a protestant church. That said, the practice of keepin body parts of saints is mostly associated with catholicism.

  7. F says

    I’m personally enamoured of the little medallions which various Church societies, monasteries, etc., will send you in the mail. They come with a “relic”: A bit of cloth embedded in the medallions which has bee “touched to the tongue” of St. X.

  8. Sergio Sider says

    Look at this video, it’s amazing.

    It was recorded in Brazil, inside a Catholic church, after installing a security camera when the priest suspected of thieves subtracting from the tithe plate.

    A woman, that worked in the church, was caught in the act. The amazing thing is when she was about to leave, she made the “sign of the cross”.

  9. Mano Singham says

    Interesting. As I understand it, a lot of Catholics make the sign of the cross when they are about to do something they know is wrong. I think it is a kind of pre-emptive apology.

  10. Sergio Sider says

    Not quite what happens here in Brazil, though. To be honest, I never knew a catholic using it prior to performing a known sin (what doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen…) 😉

    They use the ‘sign of the cross’ when entering churches, soccer fields, school tests and when facing a religious image (the cross, saints, a church,etc). The real meaning of it would be like saying: “in the name of the father, the son and the holy spirit”. So, using the sign before committing a sin is even more pathetic.

    Apart from the real meaning, in this video, the woman shows how the catholics here unconsciously and ignorantly repeat this sign, like a nervous twitch.

  11. Sergio Sider says

    By the way, I am lurking your blog and silently sharing your posts for more than a year now…and I love it!!!

  12. Mano Singham says

    Living in Brazil, you are probably far more familiar with Catholic practices than I am. The source for my suggestion is that Stephen Colbert, who is a practicing Catholic, often makes the sign of the cross when he says something that is obviously making fun of Catholic doctrine.

    Of course, a comedian may not be the best source for learning about religious practices…

  13. mnb0 says

    Probably neither is the character Tuco from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly ….. but man, is that sharp religion criticism.

  14. lordshipmayhem says

    At least months. Depends on how much Guinness they’d consumed.

    Oh. Guinness. Yes, could take years.

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